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The Quiet Champion

July 14, 2000

Just how significant is Pete Sampras's Wimbledon triumph Sunday?

We've heard that this is his stunning seventh championship in eight years; that he has won an astonishing 53 of his last 54 matches on the gabled Wimbledon lawns; that he has been number one in the men's game for six of the last seven years; and that he has now surpassed Roy Emerson's record of 12 grand slam titles. All quite true and all quite remarkable, but ultimately only part of the story.

Consider this: Just shy of 29, he is an old man by tennis standards. In the last year alone, his body has been slowly breaking down--the herniated disc and the agonizing back spasms, the nagging thigh and troublesome shoulder problems, the pulled hamstring and the bouts of tendonitis, and over the Wimbledon fortnight, the ailing shin, requiring him to seek constant treatment and skip practice. And there was the pressure. Young hot shots like Magnus Norman and Lleyton Hewitt were poised to take the title, and, as the first week wore on, Andre Agassi looked very strong.

Forget what the pundits have said. Under those conditions. It was not inevitable or ever probable that Mr. Sampras would break Emerson's record.

In the end, Mr. Sampras prevailed not because of his punishing serve, or his workmanlike volley, or his laserlike forehand, but because of sheer will. In the second set, Mr. Sampras was only three points away from a two-set deficit and near-certain defeat. But he beat back rain, darkness, two delays, and most of all the superb play of the gifted Australian, Patrick Rafter. When it was over, Mr. Sampras, wiping his eyes, was as humble and awe-struck as anyone else on Centre Court.

This show of emotion was out of character for the reticent Mr. Sampras. It has been said that he makes playing look too easy. Often as a match wears on, his tongue hangs out, and he looks tired, blasé, even disengaged. the only telltale sign of fire in the belly is an occasional fist pump or the glare out the corner of his eye. But all this is an illusion. To do what he does, Mr. Sampras must do more than your average superstar athlete.

Unlike other sports, the tennis season has virtually no end. Eleven months each year, players punish their bodies, playing week in and week out on four radically different surfaces (hard court, grass, clay and carpet), indoors and outdoors, in every time zone imaginable, from Cincinnati to Sydney. No surprise, the top players invariably burn out, and often early: Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe were 25 when they won their last grand slams, Stefan Edberg was 26, Boris Becker 28, and Ivan Lendl 29. For his part, Mr. Agassi plummeted mid-career, with his ranking dropping below 100. And on the men's tour, on any given day, number 30 in the world, or 50, or even a lowly 129, can -- and does -- beat number one.

A few sports commentators understand this. They put Mr. Sampras in that special category reserved for the likes of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Mark McGwire. But this almost certainly understates Mr. Sampras's achievements. With all due respect, none of these marvelous athletes has faced the withering day-to-day pressure confronted by Mr. Sampras. And all have had someone to fall back on during "off" days: In golf, there's your caddy: in boxing, your corner: in baseball or basketball, your teammates.

Not so in tennis. In breaking the grand slam record, Mr. Sampras has done it utterly and totally alone.

What makes this all the more extraordinary is the grace and sportsmanship with which Mr. Sampras comports himself. These are not words we often hear these days, but Mr. Sampras does neatly embody them, neither gloating in victory nor whining in defeat. The phrase he repeated most after this Wimbledon win on Sunday was "thank you," to his parents, his fiancée, the fans, and, finally, just for the chance to play. Mr. Sampras is like an apparition from an earlier era, recalling a more gracious and less course America, a time when the match's winner gallantly jumped over the net.

But oddly, for mainstream commentators, being a quiet champion isn't enough. Too often, to listen to the chattering class, you would think Mr. Sampras has done nothing right. He is routinely called a "yawn." The networks prefer to air the women's tour, ESPN, in its roundup of the top athletes of the 20th Century, dwelled upon his "quirks," like sleeping "without any light," and ranked Mr. Sampras at number 48, 13 places below a horse (Secretariat). An no doubt, to the further consternation of some, he is an avowed Republican.

After Sunday, this should change. Mr. Sampras may not yet be the greatest tennis player of all time--the French Open, with its hot, baking red clay and tenaciously partisan crowds, still eludes him as do Rod Laver's two grand slams (i.e., winning the four major tournaments in one year). But he is arguably the greatest athlete competing today. He is certainly the most gentlemanly.

Here, is a little story. In 1994, on a back court at Wimbledon, Mr. Sampras joined three elders of the game, his idol, Mr. Laver, and also Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle, for a half hour of hitting. Unlike a Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe or a Venus Williams or Martina Hingis, there was no flash, no trash talk, no theatrics or braggadocio. Just the soft thud of immaculate strokes, the sweet sight of Mr. Laver's and Mr. Sampras's running forehands, an occasional call of "good shot, mate," and the firm handshake at the net.

Mr. Sampras believes in tradition, in the history of the game. Sadly, he may be appreciated best only once he is gone.

Mr. Winik is a senior scholar at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs. His book, "April 1865," will be published next year by Harper Collins.


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