A LIGHTNING ROD
Pete Sampras never went to college, but he has studied hard. His favorite subject, and motivator, is the history of tennis, a game at which he excels.
And, as Patton had Napoleon and Nicklaus had Hogan, Sampras has his own pedestal figure to learn from. As Sampras, top-seeded and top-ranked, begins his quest for yet another major title at the two-week U.S. Open starting today in New York, there will be extra reasons to introduce the name of Rodney George Laver into the proceedings.
Laver won 11 Grand Slam events--three Australian Opens, four Wimbledons, two French Opens and two U.S. Opens. Sampras is one behind that total, with two Australians, four Wimbledons and four U.S. Opens. The record-holder is Roy Emerson, an Australian contemporary of Laver, who has 12 Grand Slam victories.
But Laver is Sampras’ model, the image and likeness he wants to emulate, and how he wants to be thought of when he, like Laver, is a star of yesteryear.
Sampras has said it often, in public and in private: Laver is his hero.
Laver, the recipient of all that adulation, is now a 59-year-old Southern California resident with a recently replaced left hip, a relatively quiet lifestyle and a golf game that can, on a given day, trickle down into the 70s. He lives in Rancho Mirage most of the year, is spending much of this summer in Del Mar and has a big old motor home that he and his wife, Mary, set out in when the spirit moves them.
“Got a great satellite dish on top,” he said, during a recent interview. “I can get every sporting event I want.”
Despite Emerson’s 12 Grand Slams and Jack Kramer’s pioneering and Bill Tilden’s mystique and Ken Rosewall’s backhand and Ellsworth Vines’ genius and Pancho Gonzalez’ serve and Bjorn Borg’s amazing Wimbledon run and John McEnroe’s verbosity and versatility and Jimmy Connors’ grit, the general tennis fan thinks of Laver as the greatest ever.
He was “The Rocket,” the sharp-featured left-hander with the red hair and the complete game. Even though he weighed, perhaps, 140, he could serve it big and come in, or he could slice and drop and work his opponent like a yo-yo.
The biggest little player ever, he was as good at the net as he was along the baseline, and those who spent many hours across the net from him quickly forgot that he was only 5 foot 9. Arthur Ashe once called Laver’s left forearm “a sledgehammer with freckles.”
He was also the only man who ever won two, count ‘em, two, Grand Slams, meaning the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in the same year. Laver did it in 1962 and 1969.
Only one other man has won one Grand Slam, Don Budge in 1938. More incredible, only two others, Fred Perry and Emerson, have won all four titles in their careers.
So, if one is to become a student of the game, who better to study than Laver?
“I’m proud that Pete feels what he feels for tennis tradition,” Laver said. “I think the sense of history keeps him going. I like how he doesn’t try to be flamboyant, how he lets his racket do the talking. He gets criticized because he’s not colorful, but I think he has great manners and that’s just his personality. He’s quiet, but he’s not shy.”
Laver deals delicately with his place in history.
“I’m not the best ever,” he said. “You just play within your era. . . . Writers write now that Pete is, or is fast becoming, the best in history. And he is, in his era, and maybe more.”
The “maybe more” is a hesitation on Laver’s part that is echoed by many who watch the career of Sampras, 26.
“He needs to win the French,” Laver said. “And I really think he can do it. What will let him do that is what has separated him from all the other players: his drive to be more consistent.
“At one time, he had a weak return of serve. Now, he gets it back. He pushes the other players on their serve to the point where they are just struggling to hold and hardly thinking about breaking him. And his serve is now the best in the modern day.
“Also, his backhand used to rattle once in a while, but he has worked hard to correct that and now he is solid there too.”
All of which are elements usable for a French Open championship and the filling of the only current void on Sampras’ tennis rap sheet: Number of French Open titles--zero.
Laver won all his other Grand Slam events on grass, remains to this day eager in praise of that fast surface and fully understands the challenge faced by a serve-and-volley player seeking to excel on a French clay surface that slows the pace and dulls the mind with endless baseline rallies.
“You just have to go over there, play lots of events on clay and learn how to do it, how to be comfortable on it,” Laver said. “I used to go over for months and months. One year, I won the Italian, German, Oslo and French events. Pete can do it. His game is all-around enough to do it. He just needs to work at it, get comfortable and, maybe, get a little lucky.”
Laver also understands the differences in the game today, and the increased depth of competition. A year after his hip replacement, he went to Cincinnati to play in a Super Seniors event as part of that recent ATP tour event and, despite his long layoff, got to the doubles final with John Lloyd before losing. He was quite proud of that outcome, but harbors no illusions.
“If I went out and played any of these guys [on the ATP tour] now, I’d get slaughtered,” he said, and he was answering a question about taking on perhaps the No. 100-ranked player.
“The equipment is so different now. I played all those years with a little-headed wood racket. With the rackets they have now, the ball comes back so fast and bounces so high, it’s remarkable. If I played now, I couldn’t use my Continental grip. I couldn’t handle the high bounces with it.”
Laver said part of the trouble tennis is having can be traced to the new equipment.
“They hit it so hard, and they can serve so big, that it all starts to look easy, and almost boring,” Laver said. “I watch [Sergi] Bruguera and [Thomas] Muster play and they just pound away, back and forth. Nothing builds. There is no drama. Big serves, big shots. Michael Chang hits ground strokes 130 mph. It’s all over so quickly.”
But Sampras is different, said Laver, who added that, the first time he saw Sampras play, as a 17-year-old at the U.S. Open, he was amazed not only at how good he was, but at the impression he gave that the game was just too easy, that if somebody got a break point against you, you just served an ace.
Now, 10 years later, Laver sees the maturing that has taken place.
“His game is attractive, interesting to watch,” he said. “Besides the wonderful serve, which he can always seem to put 10-15 inches from whatever mark he is aiming at, he has the best running forehand in the business. There just aren’t many people in the world who can play that game.”
Actually, there is only one, and Sampras now faces the additional burden of carrying tennis both in success and aesthetics.
Can he do it? Can he shoulder the burdens of the present and challenges of the future by applying the lessons of the past?
Laver thinks so, even hopes so. Actually, he has a vision of how things might go: Sampras wins the U.S. Open and finally is able to take some time to do something the two have chatted casually about--play a round of golf together.
A devoted tennis fan would love to be a fly on the golf cart for that: stories of 22 Grand Slam titles. Somebody could film it and put it on the History Channel.
* U.S. Open
Preview: The main stadium may be new, but the favorites (Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis) are the same. C4
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Most Grand Slam Titles, Male
Roy Emerson: 12
Bjorn Borg: 11
Rod Laver: 11
Pete Sampras: 10
Bill Tilden: 10
Ken Rosewall: 8
Fred Perry: 8
Jimmy Connors: 8
Ivan Lendl: 8