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Sampras is Quietly the Best

February 21, 2001

Pete Sampras is back by the baseline and trying to get to a low forehand and, really, not moving nearly as well as you might expect. Of course, that's because there's a very small girl hanging on his arm. And another small girl hanging on her arm. And it's hard to get the whole production moving at one time in one direction. It's a tennis exhibition at the Racquet Club, and Wayne Bryan, the guy in charge of it all, has handicapped Sampras by picking two girls out of the stands to hold his hand.

So every time Sampras wants to take off running, he has to say, `Hey, let's go!' And sometimes he gets to balls. And often he doesn't. And everyone in the place - tennis player, girls, fans - is convulsed in laughter. Later, sitting in his private lounge on the 12th floor of the Peabody, Sampras is asked why he bothers with such merriment. And he looks mildly confused by the question.

"It only takes a half an hour," he says. "Why wouldn't I?"

Ahh , Pete. You came back to town just when we needed you.

Sampras begins play at the Kroger St. Jude tennis tournament today. He has an evening match against former Tennessee star Chris Woodruff. And if you're weary of the excesses of sports these days, you should try to wangle a ticket. The guy is not just Wimbledon's greatest champion. He's not just one of the two or three best tennis players who's ever lived. He's not just a player who has won 63 titles and $41 million dollars and more Grand Slams - 13 - than any man who ever hefted a racket. No, Sampras is the antidote to the noise, to the bluster. He's the antidote to the XFL and the new NBA and the very notion that the game is not enough, that everything has to be amped, hyped and geeked beyond recognition. In a career defined by grace, Sampras has proven that image is not everything, that accomplishment matters. Win big enough, long enough and a remarkable thing happens.

Substance becomes its own style.

"Oh yeah," he says. "I think it is now.

"I think it's reached the point, as I won 10, 11, 12 majors, that's been the talk more than what I'm not, as far as things I do or say off the court."

You remember those days, don't you?

Sampras burst on the scene like an old wooden racket. He didn't have an entourage. He wore white. He had a one-handed backhand, and a sweetly goofy smile and, well, it all had a vaguely '60s feel to it. So people said he was bland. And not in a good way, either. Once, a story about him ran under this simple one-word headline: Boring. Sampras just kept winning. And winning and winning and winning. His coach died, and he kept winning. Players came and went and he kept winning. He had back problems and hip problems and he kept on winning. And somewhere in there, people started to notice, that, hey, this '60s guy might just be one of the greatest players ever.

"I felt a change," he says. "An appreciation."

The crowning moment came last summer, in the wet glory of Wimbledon. Sampras was going for his record 13th Grand Slam title against the Aussie, Patrick Rafter. Sampras's parents flew in to watch a final for the first time since the 1992 Open. His fiancee, Bridgette Wilson, sat with them. Sampras, slowed by tendinitis in his shin, took an injection of pain killer before the match. Before the day ended - there were two rain delays spanning more than three hours - the pain killer would wear off. But, finally, at 8:56 p.m., Sampras ended matters with a backhand winner. He then leaned over and wept.

"It was," he acknowledges now. "The greatest moment of my career."

Now Sampras is in Memphis for the first time since 1996, precisely because he's in search of more records, more moments. A tournament like Memphis can't have any particular meaning for Sampras. Like all the real champions, the guy plays for Grand Slams. But after losing to Todd Martin at the Australian Open, Sampras decided to he needed to crank up his game for the season to come.

"You can't," he says, "turn your tennis on and off."

So at 6:30 p.m., Sampras will walk onto Stadium Court for the first time in five years. He'll keep it simple. He always does. But if there's been a more awaited appearance at the Racquet Club, it' s hard to remember when.

Turns out greatness has its own kind of style.


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