GQ 2000 - Man of the Year Award
Individual Athlete Category
"I am where I am because I grew up playing with wood. I think kids ought to play with wood until age 14 or so. It's the only way to master strokes. The graphite, the power - that comes later."
He wasn't always so laid-back. Until his midteens, Pete Sampras regularly let it rip. The mien: all punk and pout. The language: low, vile. The Wilson Pro Staff: over the fence, tomahawked into the net post. A racquet's life expectancy: "A week, maybe two," he admits.
So how did the most talented player since McEnroe (Mac calls Sampras the best ever) morph from a whiny nitwit into the poker-faced butcher with the juniper-hedge eyebrows and the loosey-goosey body posture we've come to know? The transformation cuts against the current culture of sport, with its emphasis on hip-hop verbosity. Even with the country-club sports, fans now expect their heroes to amuse with their mouths as much as they awe with their skills. Twenty years ago Bjorn Borg's granite stoicism seemed "dignified"; in Sampras it's "humorless." Even Johnny Mac has called for him to be more demonstrative.
So you want a demonstration of guts? Forget the record number of Grand Slam titles, blah blah - just numbers Look instead at the epic '96 U.S. Open Quarterfinals against Spain's Alex Corretja. In the fifth-set tiebreaker, Sampras - ashen, pasty, eyelids fluttering- limped off the court, lurched unnaturally, then loudly, theatrically. . .let it rip. A collective gasp: The champ - puking! The ump issued a time warning. Sampras lingered, mouth as promiscuously agape as a mezzo-tenor's drooling. Throughout the tiebreak, he remained upright by bracing his chest against the handle butt of his racket, clocked serves at ladies' interclub speeds, yakked again. Then, at seven apiece, Sampras first-served into the net, doubled over. Corretja stepped in. Sampras stood, tossed. . .yowled like a wounded ape as he struck...a smokin' second-service ace! INSANE. The crowd knew, Corretja knew: Sampras owned it. He won the tiebreak, the tournament. "I had no choice," he says now; He, too, had to bow to the inevitable.
So the next time somebody complains, "The champ should be more colorful, more gutsy," tell him about the Corretja match. Tell him, too, about the 1995 Australian Open match in which Sampras, grief-stricken over his coach's terminal cancer and down by two sets, wept openly during and in between points - and still managed to come back and kick Jim Courier's ass. Tell him about the time Sampras saw some chick named Bridgette at a movie (up on the screen, not down in the seats), thought, Suh-weeet! - then arranged to meet her. (They're now married) And if someone still asks what happened to the old, racket-throwing Sampras, tell him the truth.
He grew up, man!