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The Pete Sampras Revolution

January 1, 2001

Sporting entertainment, in the popularly understood sense, is mostly pedestrian. But excellence, at its pinnacle, is not. It is wonderfully soul-lifting, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

IN THE final set, as their hero went through the motions on heavy, unwilling legs, the faces in the crowd on the centre court at Wimbledon six years ago were so many thousands of masks of utter despair. Like Furies in a Greek play, the majority of the spectators endured the agony waiting for the inevitable denouement.

Out on the sacred turf, Andre Agassi was just about barely in the fight in the fifth set of a fourth round match against his giant, unsmiling countryman, Todd Martin, who looked like he could have come straight out of Custer's battalion from the American Civil War.

Soon the undramatic ritual climax of an otherwise memorable and tremendously exciting match was reached and the silence in tennis's timeless theatre was sepulchral. You could have heard the drop of a pigeon feather.

Poor Martin. He had just marked his best ever Wimbledon showing, reaching the semifinal, and there he was, perhaps feeling - at least being made to feel - that he was some sort of villain, a mindless monster that had consumed the golden boy.

Later, as Martin sat in the dressing room, not far away from the din and bustle of the main entrance to the All England Club where hundreds of young men and women had gathered for a tearful farewell to their hero, Martin must have pondered the paradoxes of sporting life.

After all, it was Martin who had played a better brand of attacking tennis for a good part of the match. It was he who had the big game to succeed on grass. It was he who was the player on a roll, having won at the Queen's Club two weeks earlier that year. And, most of all, he was ranked several places above Agassi at that point. Yet, he was made to feel like some Killjoy outsider who had come out of the blue and taken out the lead actor.

Why? But why? Simple, really. You don't have to break your head trying to find an answer. It's all down to demand and supply, down to life's ultimate bottom line.

Andre Agassi sells. Todd Martin doesn't. Agassi is a huge celebrity who can switch on millions of TV sets across the globe and have people remain glued to their screens, perhaps waiting for the moment when he'd take his shirt off and reveal the exact length and density of his body hair!

You can call it narcissistic showmanship. You can call it entertainment. You can call it hype. You can call it charisma. Whatever it is, the Agassi Show at its peak was Tennis Plus, a Perfect 10 (not the opinion of this writer, to be sure, but simply a fact of life).

Not surprisingly, sponsors and tournament organisers - even the most principled ones who swear by fairplay - are eventually swayed by market logic. After all, those who pay the piper will have to have the right to call the tune and normally men like Agassi hog all the limelight at prime-time on the big stage.

Understandable as all this may be in an era of show-bizification of sport and media saturation, an era when image is not just everything but is the only thing, it must be said that men's tennis has gone through a silent - almost unseen - revolution since that June afternoon at Wimbledon in 1994.

And the great man who was responsible for this revolution - although he has never quite got the credit due to him - is none other than the most successful Grand Slam champion of all time, Pete Sampras.

It takes a truly extraordinary champion to rise above all the popular yardsticks used to measure the average and the good and to turn sporting logic on its head, as Sampras did in the second half of the 1990s.

It takes a truly extraordinary champion to rise above all the popular yardsticks used to measure the average and the good and to turn sporting logic on its head, as Sampras did in the second half of the 1990s.

Yes, players like Agassi, Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, irrespective of their rankings, whatever the level of tennis that they play, however patchy their form, however questionable their fitness, continue to be a big draw.

But when you find thousands of people watch with tremendous concentration when Sampras plays at Wimbledon or at the Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon, you could hardly come to the conclusion that they were there only because they had nothing else to do.

Over the years, tennis fans came to realise that they were part of something historic, something truly extraordinary, something that generations past and generations to come may hardly have the chance to be a part of - the Sampras saga.

And with this realisation came the craving to witness every single step in the great man's long march to surpassing glory as a champion. So what if he let his tongue hangs out and his chin is stuck in his chest? The man is a genius, wasn't he?

So, the silent revolution began. And it was about time too that a sport over-marketed largely on under-achieving ``personalities'' at last found fans queueing up to watch top-class tennis rather than be willing to part with hard-earned money to see someone take off his shirt or another blow kisses to the crowd in novel fashion.

In this sense, the credit for bringing tennis back to men's tennis should go to Sampras, no matter what dollar hungry promoters might have to say on the issue.

This apart, for all the talk about charisma and about how men's tennis had great characters in the 1980s - remember, Bjorn Borg didn't say a word to anyone, on or off the court - the ``character'' of players in a particular era reflects the times.

Take Sampras, for instance, or to step away from tennis, his golfing equivalent Tiger Woods. Surely, they couldn't have accomplished what they have with the personality of Ilie Nastase in this day and age, could they?

This is the age of the thoroughbred professional, a time when computers and assorted gadgetry do with greater efficiency what humans were trained to do another day, another time. And it is one of life's unwritten laws that when efficiency, grinding everyday efficiency, goes up, art, and the madness of art - remember a guy called John McEnroe - vanishes.

To do what Sampras has done as a champion, to do what Woods has done as a golfer extraordinaire, these men have to have the personalities that they do even if they are thought to be dull and boring sometimes.

It is one thing to say that nothing is what it used to be. It is quite another to understand that nothing will be what it used to be. And the so-called charisma crisis that men's tennis is said to have gone through in the recent years is as much a product of our own love for nostalgia as it was of the silent revolution triggered by the greatness of Sampras.

The point is, sport is entertainment. But it cannot ever be slapstick comedy or even contrived pseudo-art. Sporting entertainment, unlike a Broadway play or a circus, is never pre- determined. What takes place - the drama on court - is spontaneous.

What is not spontaneous, and is thoroughly planned, is what takes places in conference rooms, involving sponsors and promoters. After all, it takes a bit of planning to sell clothes and shoes.

And, as someone who has followed the tennis circus for over two decades, I can tell you that a lot of things about the personalities of the so-called charismatic crowd-pulling stars are planned meticulously by smart promoters.

Yet, most of the sport's great characters of the 70s and 80s were not products of planning. The vulgarity of a Jimmy Connors, the cursing and the stroking of the racquet, the comic interludes of a Nastase, the temper tantrums of a McEnroe...there was nothing planned about these. They were spontaneous and they were products of another age too.

In the event, it was a serious mistake on the part of the game's promoters to have even attempted to recreate such characters in the high 90s. In doing that, what was lost was spontaneity.

And the leader of the silent revolution - Sampras - who, like Oscar Wilde, has nothing to declare on court but his genius, survived all the hype around him to not only show up the folly of the men who run it but also to lift it above the level of pedestrian entertainment.

Entertainment, in the popularly understood sense, is mostly pedestrian. But sporting excellence, at its apotheosis, is not. It is a thing of rare beauty, something exquisite and sublime.

So, three cheers to Pete Sampras for bringing the focus back to excellence and enduring glory as opposed to mere entertainment and ephemeral celebrity.

And, if a few young ones who have done so well in the first year of the new millennium - Gustavo Kuerten, Marat Safin and Juan Carlos Ferrero, - seem to have the right kind of focus, then the credit should again go to Sampras who authored the great unseen revolution.


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