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He’s Just Pete--but That’s Plenty

Americans like Pete Sampras for the same reasons they used to like Dempsey, Ruth, Red Grange, Walter Johnson, Joe Louis, John Wayne--or even John Daly. They adore raw power. They revere the guy with the knockout punch, the home run swat, the explosive touchdown run, the 100-m.p.h. fastball. The quick draw in the western. Dirty Harry. The guy with the equalizer.

They like to think they’re for the underdog. But underdogs don’t sell tickets. They flock to see the guys named “Sultan of Swat,” “Brown Bomber,” “Galloping Ghost,” “Big Train.” Guys nicknamed “Rabbit” don’t get it, don’t fill seats. They get cult followings, not sellouts. “Charlie Hustle” is OK, but “Iron Horse” makes you reach for the wallet.

We have to get a nickname for Pete Sampras. “Pistol Pete?” Nah. Too trite. Besides, a 129-m.p.h. serve is not a pistol, it’s a railroad gun. Big Bill (note the “Big”) Tilden’s serve like that was called “cannonball.”

We don’t like sending out a representative known as “Bunny” or “Bitsy.” We like “Rocky.” We want to play the Borises and Ivans and Stefans of the world with someone whose nom de games strikes terror.

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But it’s getting risky fastening a colorful nickname on a player in sport today. It can blow up in your face. The Ivans can all turn terrible, the cannonballs can become soap bubbles. It’s getting so that John Wayne is getting killed in the third reel.

Take tennis. It used to be the most formful of all sports. It was a monarchy.

“Unknown Wins Open” was not even in the lexicography of the sport. Tennis was like the House of Tudor, a succession of kings. The crown was passed down. There was Tilden. Then there was Don Budge, followed by Jack Kramer, Lew Hoad, and then the great Laver, Connors and Borg. It was an aristocracy. Golf was a crapshoot by comparison.

But, today, it has become a lottery. Look at the Newsweek Champions Cup at the Hyatt Grand Champions resort here this week. Fourteen of the 18 top players in the world began this tournament. They were expected to run the ribbon clerks--the unseeded--out by nightfall Thursday.

Instead, the ribbon clerks began raking in all the pots. By week’s end, they had run out of the game 1) Jim Courier, seeded second here and ranked No. 3 in the world; 2) Andre Agassi, winner of Wimbledon and 19 other world titles; 3) Sergi Bruguera, reigning French Open champion and No. 5 in the world; 4) Goran Ivanisevic, the Croatian crusher, Wimbledon finalist and a ball-basher who had 957 aces to his credit last year; 5) Michael Chang, French Open champion and winner of this tournament two years ago, seeded No. 6 here and ranked No. 8 in the world; 6) Cedric Pioline, who reached the final in last year’s U.S. Open, the first Frenchman in 64 years to do that; 7) Marc Rosset, winner of the gold medal in the Barcelona Olympics and No. 16 in the world.

And who had been left standing while all that carnage was being toted up? Well, there was one guy who was ranked No. 1,013 in the world, one guy who was 99th and another who was 49th.

Guess who restored order? Well, it was our own tennis version of Clint Eastwood. The guy with the .357 Magnum. Pete Sampras. Wyatt Earp on a white horse. The marshal.

Pete put the ribbon clerks on the noon stage out of town--with a little help from Stefan Edberg.

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Just when it looked like the weekend would be for no-names only, Sampras and Edberg blasted into a semifinal pairing. A pity it was a semifinal, because this was a matchup worthy of Wimbledon. This was no semi-windup. This was Dempsey-Tunney.

Sampras is coming off a season in which he has won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open in a row. And Edberg has won two Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens and two Australian Opens.

There is no trouble finding a nickname for Master Edberg. This is tennis’ “Mr. Smooth.” Edberg’s nom de courts should be “the Mechanic.” He plays tennis like the guy who came to fix the plumbing. He takes stock of the problem, drops his toolbox, ambles over to see exactly what it’s going to take, then he proceeds methodically to find the leak in your game. He’s as unemotional as a border guard. He doesn’t play tennis, he performs it. Like surgery. He’s as patient as Mother Teresa.

Playing Sampras in a three-set match is like fighting a bobcat in a closet. You don’t have too much time to figure out strategy.

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It’s tough playing a guy when your best hope is that he will miss. It’s like hoping the alligator doesn’t see you.

“It takes you a set just to get used to the pace of that ball coming at you,” Edberg admitted after losing to Sampras Saturday, 6-3, 3-6. 6-4. “By the time you get ready to hit it, it’s too late.”

Sampras is No. 1 in the world because he’s going in the game, so to speak, with a 54-card deck. That serve of his is worth 10 points a set. Those are points you more or less have to spot him. After all, he was the first guy in the game to have more than 1,000 aces (1,011) last year. You might be able to see his ball better in daylight, but the ball goes faster in light dry air. In other words, in a monsoon or under water, you might stand a chance. At sea level, forget it.

He served 15-to-20 m.p.h. faster than Edberg all afternoon Saturday in what could have been a preview of this year’s Grand Slam finals. His balls came in at nuclear velocities--128, 122, 124 m.p.h. against Stefan’s top of 110 and usual 100. Edberg needs only one breakthrough a set to win and he got it in the second set, 6-3, Saturday but, by the end of the third set, he looked like a guy caught in a rockslide.

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You can see why Sampras needs a nickname. It has been a while since we had a Yank at court whose ball moves so fast it tends to disappear like a Koufax fastball on the way to the plate. We always find a sobriquet to fit our top guns. We haven’t had one in tennis in this country in a while, leaning to guys who won with (ugh!) two-handed backhands.

Now we have a guy who wins the old-fashioned way, he knocks you out. When a guy in golf gets this unstoppable, he becomes “the Golden Bear.” In basketball, he becomes “Air Jordan.”

The times being what they are, it will probably have to be something like “Laser Pete.” But the rest of tennis probably wishes they would just call him illegal. Or maybe just raise the net when he’s serving.

* TODAY’S FINAL: Petr Korda, who defeated Pete Sampras in the $6-million Grand Slam Cup in December, challenges the No. 1 seed again in championship match at Indian Wells. C9

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