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What Keeps Pete Playing

Wimbledon Special July 2001 issue

Pete Sampras, who turns 30 this year, has been on the tour for 14 years. He’s won a record 13 Grand Slam titles, banked over $40 million in prize money and even more than that in endorsement deals. He’s also got a gorgeous wife. So, why does he keep training, travelling and putting himself through the stresses and strains of pro tennis? Sampras talks to Jorg Allmeroth

Sampras on the Strain of Being a Champion

Q: How do you cope with the pressure of being the player everyone wants to beat at every tournament?

Pete: The pressure is immense. At times I’ve felt like a mountain climber constantly challenged by an 8,000-metre summit. Everyone out there is just waiting for the moment when they can knock out someone like myself or Agassi. I believe you can only hold your own if you’re a fairly laid-back and self-assured person like I am. I have great respect for my opponents, but I also say to myself: “I’m better than them”. Also, at this stage in my career the pressure isn’t so great; ultimately I’ve achieved most of my goals, especially the Grand Slam record last year at Wimbledon.

Q: Which is the greater: the physical or the mental challenge?

Pete: The most difficult thing is conquering your own weaker self. You always have to be fresh in your own mind, always find your inner concentration, and always keep cool at the important moments of the important games. Compared to that, the physical exertion pales into insignificance.

Q: Since tennis has become a non-stop entertainment machine, has the strain on the top players become greater?

Pete: That’s right. It’s like a non-stop merry-go-round. But this constant exposure can also be dangerous. The stars are expected to appear at all the tournaments. Just look at the injury rates they’re too high. And because the top players are overstretched, there is also this ever-increasing trend towards unexpected results. Many players simply cannot sustain such exertion without it affecting their health.

Q: Many people say that the modern power game is unattractive, especially at Wimbledon. What do you think?

Pete: I don’t think that any of the spectators who have come in recent years have regretted it. Many of the so-called experts forget that someone like Andre Agassi has won tournaments on all surfaces. He has proved himself against all types of player. There is an answer to everything in tennis. It never stops evolving.

Sampras on His Rivalries in Tennis

Q: You weren’t considered a huge talent when you were young, were you?

Pete: I simply let things take their course. Others in my age group, such as Jeff Tarango, Jim Courier and Agassi were ahead of me at one stage. But your actual career starts at professional level. That’s when you have to prove yourself.

Q: Has the standard in top-class tennis levelled out?

Pete: in any big tournament these days there are always about 30 players who could win. And they go into it with that attitude. But this development is not necessarily a good thing. It can be dangerous. A clear hierarchy at the top would be better for the sport, for the sponsors and the spectators.

When someone different wins every week, as in golf, the interest in tennis will fall. But I’m afraid that the era of one or two dominant players could soon be gone for good.

Q: Are you in favour of strong rivalries such as that between Agassi and yourself around 1995?

Pete: That was the best period of tennis for me. There was an incredible intensity to those games. We were there like two boxers in the ring – No.1 against No.2. Even people in America who didn’t know what a tiebreak was, were glued to the T.V.

Q: Did you miss him when he dropped down the rankings in 1997?

Pete: It was really sad when Andre fell to No.141 in the world, especially if you consider what a great talent he has. But there was a time when he was not the type to be able to persevere with something. Nowadays it’s a completely different matter. Now he lives for tennis like never before. I have to admit that at one time I had written him off.

Q: How much does it worry you that you have never won the French Open?

Pete: Paris is certainly the missing piece of the jigsaw for me. Victory there is the biggest goal that Pete Sampras the tennis player still has. But I wouldn’t turn my whole tennis career upside-down just to win at Roland Garros. I wouldn’t force it, like Lendl tried in vain to do at Wimbledon. My problem is that on clay I’m vulnerable, and the other players know it.

Sampras on His Personality

Q: You have often been criticised for being too colourless as a leading personality in tennis.

Pete: What am I supposed to do? Make the headlines every day hold wild parties? Or keep the courts busy by beating up my opponents? Hollywood on the Centre Court is just not my style. I want to be accepted as the best tennis player. I’m not interested in the gossip columns.

Q: But are you interested in your public image?

Pete: Of course. The problem is that just being nice is not enough these days. You also have to provide the world with scandals and have a dark side in order to be considered an interesting character. I’m delighted when parents come up to me and say: “Pete, you’re a role model for our children”. It’s moments like this that convince me that you really don’t have to play the bad boy to improve your image. I simply don’t want to court controversy for controversy’s sake.

Q: So image isn’t everything as far as you’re concerned?

Pete: Basically, I don’t want to be remembered as a comedian or an entertainer, but as the man who won the most Grand Slams in tennis. The best show is tennis itself… a spectacular stroke, a great victory.

Sampras on His Wife and Parents

Q: Your wife Bridgette is an actress. Does she find your performances on the tennis court exciting?

Pete: Fortunately, she’s only interested in me and not the show. She would probably make a better tennis player that I would an actor.

Q: How important is it for you for Bridgette to be at tournaments?

Pete: If really helps if she’s able to be there. It’s great if I can look up to the stand and see her face.

Q: Does it make you play better?

Pete: I am always very happy when Bridgette comes to tournaments with me. And players have to be happy to win. None of us is a soulless robot.

Q: Why is it that your parents are so rarely seen at tennis events?

Pete: They don’t usually come because they get too excited about the matches and because they prefer to stay out of the limelight. As I do. But it was lovely to have them there at last year’s Wimbledon. I’ll never forget it.

Q: How much have your parents influenced your career?

They were never the type of over-ambitious tennis parents you see. They never put me under pressure. I was allowed to develop at my own pace and, unlike some others, was not expected to win every match I played. I will always be grateful to them for that.

Sampras on His Lifestyle

Q: You once said that Boris Becker is rather like Germany’s Michael Jordan. How big are you in the USA?

Pete: People recognise me on the street. But I’m not greeted with hysteria wherever I go. I can happily go to the cinema or a restaurant without people going mad, which is very nice. The likes of Michael Jordan live in a golden cage, a beautiful yet nightmarish existence. I don’t envy Tiger Woods either; he’s also a prisoner to his fame. I don’t believe that that sort of life is quite such a fairy-tale.

Q: What do you like least about your career?

Pete: The worst thing is the travelling. The eternal flying from A to B, the jet lag after long journeys. It’s really tiring, and it drains you of your energy.

Q: You have been on the tennis circuit for the last 12 years. What have you seen of the world?

Pete: Not a lot. I’m not travelling as a tourist, but as a tennis player. To be honest, I’m not interested in the city, but in my sport. I’ll have plenty of time to go to museums when I’m too old to play tennis.

Q: What is a normal playing day like?

Pete: It’s all geared towards success. There’s no great variation. You train, you play, you go for a massage. In the hotel you try to relax. Listen to music, watch TV, and go for a meal in the evening. And sleep a lot. I’m a great sleeper; I can sleep for up to 14 hours on the trot. And I can sleep anywhere.

Q: None of that sounds very glamorous?

Pete: When I tell my friends that I’m flying to Europe again, they’re always envious and say things like: “Wow, what a brilliant, exciting life you lead”. But the reality is rather more mundane. If you have a big match to play you can’t be going to the Louvre.

Q: Do you read books?

Pete: I always have books in my bag, but I rarely read them through to the end. I simply haven’t got the patience for it. My favourite writer is John Grisham: I might even reach the last page of one his books. But only after six months.

Q: You’re known as a motor-sports fan. Would you have liked a career as a racing driver?

Pete: I love speed. And I could imagine that I would have a feeling for driving at the limits. But I’m an outstanding tennis player, not a second Michael Schumacher or Mikka Hakkinen.

Q: Your former coach, the late Tim Gullikson once said: “If Pete had wanted he could have been one of the best golfers in the world”.

Pete: That doesn’t look very likely with my current handicap of 12! I could certainly be a lot better if I played more often. But golf is a wonderful handicap sport, and everything is so relaxed and unproblematic.

Q: Have you any idea what your life will be like after tennis?

Pete: Not really. I don’t see myself becoming a TV commentator, the US Davis Cup captain or a coach. I don’t tend to think ahead further than the next three or four years – that’s about as long as I’d hope to be able to continue playing as a professional.

Q: Would you stop earlier if you began to think you were no longer good enough to win a Grand Slam, like Becker?

Pete: Definitely. I sympathise with Boris’s decision one hundred percent. Like me, he’s a man for the great tournaments, the big wins. When that’s no longer possible, the fire goes out in you. That’s when it’s time to bow out.

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