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For Pete’s Sake : Old-Fashioned Sam and Georgia Sampras Keep in Background as Their Son Basks in U.S. Open Glory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sam Sampras has one of those expressive, grand Greco faces with bushy eyebrows and dark eyes unable to hide any mood.

But you’ll have to take our word for it.

Georgia Sampras, his wife, is shorter, softer, lighter of look and with a very quick smile.

But we can’t show you.

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Because the Samprases declined to be photographed for this story on the grounds of total disinterest in public curiosity.

They are not concerned with national adulation or being recognized much farther than two blocks from home. So they refused, but politely, to visit with photographers from CNN and CBS this month. Even Johnny Carson’s producers were asked Friday, please, not to put the Samprases on camera as part of the studio audience.

For it was their son, Pete Sampras, they said, who Sept. 9 won the 1990 U.S. Open Tennis Championship. Not his mom and dad.

“The only picture we want in the paper is Pete’s picture,” explained Sam Sampras, 53. The home is now Rancho Palos Verdes but the accent remains mildly Chicago, closer to the South Side than North Shore. “We want all the glory and happiness to be Pete’s.

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“We didn’t work hard hitting balls over a net. He did. Let him enjoy it.”

Added Georgia Sampras: “His enjoyment, that’s our joy.”

That’s also the unusual decency of the Samprases; quite shy, very private, and stay-at-homes in a sport where television cameras spend as much time on doting parents as they do on their millionaire tennis teen-agers.

The face of Peter Graf--and details of his alleged indiscretions with a Playboy model--are as familiar as daughter Steffi Graf’s forehand. Stony John McEnroe Sr. has watched fiery John McEnroe Jr. since his son abused his first lines person. Familial entourages (plus assorted coaches, personal managers and hairstylists) have formed the Chang Gang and Agassi’s Army and Martina Navratilova’s Flying Circus.

But there will be no Sampras Set.

In fact, Sam and Georgia Sampras were not in New York to see their 19-year-old son become the youngest man to win the championship. Nor did they watch the match on television.

In the semifinals at Flushing Meadow, when Sampras was stomping on the hesitant rejuvenation of McEnroe’s career, his parents were presumed indifferent and watching “Presumed Innocent” at a South Bay theater.

In the finals, as Sampras annihilated Andre Agassi as one would a public enemy (actually, Agassi and Sampras have been friends and opponents since their preteen years on the junior circuit) mom and dad were strolling a Long Beach shopping mall--taking great care to avoid any Circuit City with 27 television sets tuned to the U.S. Open.

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Part of it was bald superstition. Last year, during Sampras’ first full year on the pro circuit, father chaperoned son to matches in Germany, France and Sweden.

“I watched six matches and (Pete) lost all six in the first rounds,” Sampras remembers. “He was upset, I was nervous . . . so I felt it was a curse I give him. Since that day, I don’t watch. And he has been winning.”

Some of it was self-preservation. For when Pete Sampras hurts, his father aches. “I just don’t like to see him feel bad,” said Sam Sampras. “I get too nervous watching him play.”

But most of it was Sam and Georgia Sampras being wonderfully old fashioned--by deciding, as their son approached 18, his majority and a superiority at professional tennis, that he should live his own life.

“We’ve pulled away,” Sam said. “As far as anything else is concerned, we’re very close. But we cut the cord in tennis.”

Their son--slender, just growing out of gangling and with thicket eyebrows just like his dad--says he really prefers it that way.

“Because when I’m playing a tournament, I kinda get to do what I want to do,” said Pete Sampras. He was home for a few days this week before flying to Dallas and today’s opening of a tournament showcasing champions who suddenly are Sampras’ peers--Ivan Lendl, Andres Gomez and Boris Becker. “If I want to have room service and stay in and watch TV all day, I can do that. I don’t have to worry about parents. If you know what I mean.”

Anyone close to the creature habits of 19-year-old American teen-agers will know exactly what he means.

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Agassi, continued Sam Sampras, might need team support. Michael Chang (another Sampras sparring partner from their wonder years) has grown to rely on a family presence at his tournaments. "(But) Pete doesn’t need that,” Sam continued. “Pete doesn’t need to look in the stands asking: ‘Where’s my mother, where’s my father?’ ”

And mother says it is enough for her to be at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow and Paris in spirit. She says: “If you love the person, you’re thinking about them and your spirit always is with them. Pete knows that. He knows I adore him and that’s enough.

“So as long as I know he is happy and healthy, I’m happy. I don’t have to be there and he doesn’t have to have me there.”

If all of this sounds like a long throwback to Wally Cleaver, the 1936-39 Yankees and apple pie wrapped in a gingham napkin, consider this entire family.

The family roots of Soterios (Sam) Sampras are Chicago via Greece, Poland and Ellis Island. Georgia, from a family of 10, was born in Salasia, near Sparta, Greece.

He became a mechanical engineer. She came to the United States in 1960 as a beautician. They met at the Washington hotel where she worked, married a year later and have lived thoroughly ever since.

The eldest in their family is Gus, 22, who recently graduated with a degree in finance from Cal State Long Beach. Gus is busy with his first client--brother Pete, tennis’ latest teen-age millionaire.

Stella, 21, is a senior at UCLA with training and talents splitting in interesting directions--a psychology career up one road and along the other, the women’s tennis circuit, where she is a nationally ranked amateur. Then there’s Marion, 16, a member of the Palos Verdes High School tennis team.

The family attends the Greek Orthodox Church in Redondo Beach and gathers for Thanksgiving and mourns the death of a godparent together. Georgia is its gentle matriarch. Dad is working closer to early retirement from his job as a civilian project manager for the Titan missile program at USAF Space Division, El Segundo.

Pete Sampras is just as everyday. Despite a new annual income close to a respectable Lotto win, he does not own a car and still lives at home where sister Stella has commandeered his room. However, Pete’s poster of a Lamborghini Countach sports car remains.

He does not have a girlfriend. His choice in music runs to Cat Stevens, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Simon and other antediluvians. He is a tennis classicist with a one-handed backhand and a game modeled on its immortals. That his temperament matches theirs also is by design.

On court, Sampras heaviest emotion is a half frown, then a full smile at his blunders. He has yet to spit at an umpire. He doesn’t even wear a gold necklace where the poundage seems to measure a player’s ATP ranking. Or line of credit.

“I don’t like him to wear a chain,” said his mother. “But I’d like him to wear a little cross.”

Bob Kramer, executive director of the Southern California Tennis Assn. and son of tennis legend Jack Kramer, sees Sampras and his parents as “simple, refreshing people of traditional values.

“Just like my dad, the son of a railroad man who still calls everybody ‘sir.’ Compared to other youngsters in the game today, Pete Sampras is one of the most unaffected players to come along since Stan Smith.”

Jim Hillman, a director of junior tennis tournaments in Southern California, has known Sampras since he was 12. “Very, very polite, friendly, a little shy and no problem on the court . . . . And I’d be glad to have him as my son.”

Writing in the current issue of Sports Illustrated, Alexander Wolff notes that Sampras splits the difference between the pious Michael Chang and the ostentatious Agassi.

Hence his welcome arrival to world tennis, a sport growing increasingly top heavy with temperament, confrontation and rebellious teen-agers dedicated more to the soundness of their financial investments than the purity of the sport.

Not that Sampras didn’t splurge after his successes at the U.S. Open and a winner’s purse of $350,000.

“After beating Lendl (in the quarterfinals), the next day I went shopping at Gresham Bros., a nice store in New York,” he said. “I bought a suit because that’s something I’ll need in the future.”

What he really doesn’t need, he said, is to spend money on some expensive sports car. Peg that reluctance to a healthy spot of sibling rivalry. “Right now, I’m really not home that much,” he explained. Then came the chuckle. “If I do get, say, a Porsche, my brother (Gus) would be driving it all the time. I’d come home and there would be 20,000 miles on it because he’s been going to Las Vegas and back.”

Pete Sampras would genuinely like to see his chosen sport return to that all-white era of laminated wooden racquets requiring finer margins of touch than today’s computer-designed clubs of graphite.

He plays yesterday’s game with today’s technology. His 122-m.p.h. serve is not designed to get the ball in play but to punch a hole through his opponent’s strings. He has the full inventory of strokes and a permanent itch.

“When I see a ball sitting up there, I have this urge to bash it,” he said. “I want to bring back the serve-and-volley game, the one (Rod) Laver and (Ken) Rosewall and Kramer played. I’ve always liked the attitude of Laver, his fairness, his sportsmanship.”

It was Sunday at North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village. Later, Sampras would play an exhibition, honoring a commitment made months before he found world fame in less than a fortnight.

He would also lose this charity match by a tie breaker to Brad Gilbert, friend and fellow pro.

Shy with strangers, yet quick and funny with friends, Sampras spoke of a week crammed with public adulation, his form on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the inconvenience of immediate recognition and how he was looking forward to more even times.

He spoke of who he is not.

He is not a McEnroe. “I am not going to have an attitude like John, someone who gets pissed off,” he said.

He is not an Agassi. “I’m a little bit . . . I’m not . . . um, uh, I’m a little bit more normal than Andre in the way I look and who I am.”

Who is he? “I don’t get too stressed out or tense about anything. If I win, I win. If I lose, it’s no big deal.”

If the image of Agassi is the rebellious glitz he projects in his commercials for Canon cameras, so Sampras seeks to show “that I’m a nice kid with a good attitude on the court. And I’m not going to change.”

That, of course, cannot be. Last month he was virtually unknown. Today he is public property and the penalties are constant.

On Monday, the Samprases switched to an unlisted number for their small-roomed, California-Mediterranean ranch off a steep cul-de-sac pointing at the Pacific.

Pete Sampras has a new agent. Now he is represented by ProServ Inc., of Arlington, Va., a 200-client sports marketing company that also speaks for Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and other tennis stars.

He chooses not to discuss deals with sponsors. With interview requests he is becoming “picky about who I say yes or no to.” He has quickly earned that essential stall of the famous: “You should talk to my agent.”

Sampras says he is thinking of a place of his own. Monte Carlo is a possibility, says his dad.

Last year, sportswriters could be forgiven for spelling his name Zeke Pampras. His media availability was limitless. Now his time must be portioned into sound bites and formal press conferences. Where, most times, he scratches his head before answering questions.

It’s tough duty, says Sampras. But he just guesses everything will work out OK if he shows courtesy, stays cool, and works hard to avoid “any fights or anything which might ruin my image.

“I don’t know if it is going to come to the point where I have to start wearing sunglasses and a hat. It’s not like I’m Andre with his long hair and he is really recognizable.

“Whereas myself, I look a little more norm. . . . You know, just the all-American type of kid. But if I change, I’m sure my agent will tell me. I’m sure my parents will tell me. And my dad will see it in a split second.”

Sampras sees his parents as best friends. “They are the people I trust most in the world and I love them,” he said.

That, he knows, is because they shared 12 years of sacrifice to attain this month’s triumph. “They put a lot of time and money and a lot of effort making trips to the junior tournaments . . . to make me a good player.

“Growing up, they didn’t put a whole lot of pressure on me. They let me develop as a player and not worry about winning every junior tennis match . . . and I will always be thankful.”

Sam Sampras is thankful that those early days are done. Especially, he says, the long suffering of brother Gus and sister Marion “because all the attention was on Pete and his sister (Stella).”

Vacations weren’t taken because there was always a tournament to be played somewhere. The Samprases went to church with tennis clothes in the car so Pete and Stella could change after the service. As their junior stars rose, manufacturers gave Pete and Stella sneakers, rackets, shirts, shorts and jackets. Gus and Marion got their hand-me-downs.

“And he was never home to do the work (around the house),” Georgia said.

Sam Sampras said he recognized and understood the jealousy and animosity of Gus and Marion. Their relationships have healed now, he said. “But I also knew that if I didn’t do it, if I just let everything remain status quo, Pete would not have won the U.S. Open.”

In the beginning, in the family’s early years in Potomac, Md., and Washington, D.C., there was no program for Pete Sampras. He was just a kid with a good eye and a habit of endlessly whanging a tennis ball against the basement wall.

When the Samprases moved to Southern California in 1978, it was not to enhance Pete’s tennis game. They just wanted an easier life in a softer climate.

“I was not going to join a (tennis) club,” Sam Sampras explained. “I was going to put Pete and Stella with local tennis, you know, public courts.

“One day, I had all four kids going through the Torrance public courts and . . . two lawyers were watching Pete play. They asked about Pete.

“I told them the situation . . . we were not (tennis club) members and I didn’t want to cause any animosity in the family because of the older brother (Gus) and the younger daughter (Marion) not getting any attention.

“They told me that I was foolish to be that way because we had to give the boy (Pete) an opportunity.”

Sampras said he calculated the risk and took it.

The first of five coaches began grooming Pete Sampras. He played out of the Peninsula Racket Club, Palos Verdes, and then the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Rolling Hills Estates.

Sam and Georgia Sampras do not play tennis. But they know life and coached their son in some unusual values. Being a good winner is tougher than being a good loser. Playing well is even better than winning or losing.

“There were some occasions when Pete would do like other kids, where he would get really upset and take his racket and just hit the ground,” Sam Sampras said. “I finally told him: ‘Do that one more time and I’ll not support you in tennis.”’

Pete Sampras remembers that warning: “That’s where I got my good attitude. I’ve never got real down on a bad line call or a loss.”

By the age of 16, with his father’s cool now a visible inheritance, Pete Sampras was a finalist in the U.S. Tennis Assn.'s Boys 18 Nationals. He also was on the United States’ junior Davis Cup team.

Yet success produced another family issue. Was Pete Sampras good enough for a career in professional tennis? If so, should he drop out of high school?

There was no single meeting, recalls Sam Sampras. Just long family discussions with Pete’s coach at that time, Dr. Peter Fischer, a Bellflower pediatrician.

There was talk of Becker and Lendl and other players who had not graduated from high school. If it worked for them, maybe it would work for Pete Sampras.

In the end, said Sam Sampras, it was decided that Pete should finish his junior year at Palos Verdes High. Then he would play the pro tour as an amateur, as an experiment.

He began beating adults with higher experience and rankings. Then Chang and Agassi, also a few semesters short of finishing high school, turned professional. “We felt that Pete was equal to them,” said Sam Sampras.

In ascending progression, Sampras spent 1990 marching through rounds of 16, the quarterfinals and semifinals in Australia, the United States and Italy.

And now he is the United States Open Champion.

He has enough money to have offered his parents anything they would like. They have said no. It has been suggested that the income and reputation of Pete Sampras now are large enough to justify a small entourage. He has said no.

There is agreement, however, that Sampras’ U.S. Open win was no fluke.

“It would be a fluke if he hadn’t won at Philadelphia (the U.S. Indoor Championships),” said Sam Sampras. “It would be a fluke if he hadn’t won at Manchester (the Manchester Open in England). If you look at the groundwork, you’ll know it isn’t a fluke.”

Coach Fischer, of course, knew of Pete Sampras’ Grand Slam potential. He wrote about it on a color photograph of himself and Pete taken in 1981 after a small local win. It stands framed in the Sampras’ home.

“It’s a long way from Carson to Wimbledon,” noted Fisher’s inscription. “But we will get there for sure. . . . “

Pete Sampras would like that. “That’s a tournament where I really want to do well,” he said. “It is the most prestigious and awesome tournament in the world.”

Sam Sampras would like to see his son at Wimbledon.

“If he is in the final at Wimbledon, I will go see him,” he said. “But just the final. Not the quarters, not the semis.”


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