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King of the Courts

Janurary 16, 2000

One player has dominated the world of tennis over the past decade - a skinny kid from Washington DC who grew into a tall, powerful young man known to tennis fans the world over: Pete Sampras. How has the brilliant serve and vollyer achieved supremacy in this increasingly competitive sport, breaking such records as ending the year as No.1 for an unprecedented six years? An analysis of his game and career shows the following.

Even many of Pete's fellow players are only too ready to acknowledge his dominance. After winning the Australian Open in 1999, Yevgeny Kafelnikov publicly voiced his gratitude to Sampras for not playing there that year, thus enabling the Russian to win! Not that the American has been short of competition. Players such as Courier, Edberg, Agassi and Rafter have made their mark on the 1990s, each with their own style. But, after winning 12 Grand Slam titles, Pete Sampras stands above the others, and seems set to achieve even more.

Numerous pundits rate Sampras the greatest player of all time, better than Perry, Budge, Borg, McEnroe - even better, perhaps, than the player on whom Sampras has tried to model himself, Rod Laver. Obviously these comparisons are subjective and it is difficult to compare players from different eras. Also, there are many who feel that Sampras's game lacks the excitement engendered by the kind of on-court behaviour for which John McEnroe became most famous, and the temperamental displays of Andre Agassi. However, many tennis connoisseurs are happy merely to see the game played at its best, rather than such spectacles as arguments with umpires. Sampras remains unconcerned by his critics, wishing to be remembered as a player who is 'a classy guy'. If he beats the long-standing record set by Roy Emerson by winning his 13th Grand Slam title, he will not only be classy but in a class of his own.

It's difficult to ascertain what makes Pete Sampras tick, what he is thinking or feeling most of the time. But there have been a few memorable occasions when the quiet American has worn his heart on his Nike-sponsored sleeve. During his Australian Open match against Jim Courier in 1994, Sampras, having just learnt of the seriousness of his former coach Tim Gullikson's illness, was reduced to tears and unable to continue for a few minutes. Yet he still went on to win the match. And those who saw the American Davis Cup victory over Russia in 1995 will remember Sampras playing his heart out literally until he dropped, having to be carried off court with exhaustion. But it was worth it, and no-one could deny the strength of his fighting spirit on behalf of his country. As Courier says of his oft-times opponent and long-time friend: "You play Pete for three and a half hours, you've got the guy by the neck the whole time and he keeps on firing. He's got a great heart and he's going to leave it all on the court."

Sampras's first coach was Pete Fischer and it is to him that his talented protégé, and tennis fans the world over, owes the advice to attack the net and volley. In a game where the majority of players are now baseliners, Pete Sampras has become one of the greatest serve and volleyers. In tribute to the genius of his hands and ability at the net, another frequent opponent, Michael Chang, has this to say: "When Pete's playing his best, he's practically impossible to pass. What can you do? Maybe go over the net and break his strings?"

But even outstanding natural talent is not sufficient to win a string of Grand Slams. At this level the difference between the winner and loser often comes down to mental strength. Having notched up 60 singles titles so far, Sampras obviously has a sound psychological game. As Yannick Noah attests: "Pete's main strength is his exceptional mental toughness, which allows him to bring out, from deep inside him, that last drop of energy in the capital moments when he really needs it." However, the Frenchman Noah has achieved something which still eludes the American - a French Open title.

Considered by many to have the perfect all-round game, Sampras does have a weakness: his stamina. Being of Greek origin, he has inherited a condition common to many men of Mediterranean descent - thalassemia. This affects red blood cells and can result in extreme fatigue. Sampras and his trainers over the years have done all they can to combat the condition, but when it comes down to it, it's the champion's heart of the man which can best overcome the disability. Witness to this includes his five set win over Alex Corretja at the US Open in 1996, which reduced both men to exhaustion but the loser - who had nothing left to give - to tears.

From the full arsenal, it's difficult to decide which is Sampras's finest shot. He can make unbelievable ground across the baseline with a running forehand pass, has a deadly forehand volley, delivers a spectacular 'slam dunk', and has a powerfully accurate serve. His excellent footwork and general court mobility are allied to the killer instinct of knowing just how and when to up his game. "What makes Pete such a great player is his explosiveness and his ability to take the opportunities", says Andre Agassi. If anyone knows about that, it's Agassi, the man who was handed a tennis lesson in straight sets by Sampras when in pursuit of his first US Open title in 1990. They have played many memorable matches since, with the majority decided in Sampras's favour.

Sampras does not have a serve as fast as Greg Rusedski and may not fire as many aces as Goran Ivanisevic. But how many Grand Slams have they won between them? The American's serve is, however, crushingly effective - earning him the nick-name of 'Pistol Pete'. The former United States Davis Cup captain Tony Trabert has watched Sampras mature into one of the game's greats. "Pete is the best server in tennis", he says. "He has power, variety and, perhaps most important, a better second serve than most." Averaging more than 10 aces per match, Sampras usually achieves twice as many service winners. This is the equivalent of almost 8 free games - a huge advantage for any player. His unusual starting position, with left toes off the ground and hardly any weight on his leading leg, delivers a serve of deadly precision. Perhaps even more important, it is extremely hard to read.

Not surprisingly, Pete Sampras's huge success is reflected in the amount of money he has earned, which is nearing the US$40 million, far more than any other player. Although Andre Agassi reaps more from endorsements than his compatriot, Sampras's deals with companies such as Nike and Wilson add considerably to his fortune. But he is as conservative with his spending as he is in his behaviour. His largest investment is probably his Beverley Hills home, but this was to enable him to live near his family. He does drive a Porsche but, unlike the flamboyant type of millionaire, has no fleet of expensive cars or private jets, and his idea of an enjoyable evening out is a quiet meal with family or friends. So having achieved so much in his chosen career without any on- or off-court histrionics, why should Pistol Pete want to change his calibre now?

Based upon "Fit for a King" by Barry Flatman, The Express, London

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