Sampras Is Game’s Best, and He May Get Better
I’m guilty of underappreciating Pete Sampras, and I’m not alone. It’s a club with far too many members. Since Sampras is still just 26 years old, there’s time for us to adjust our attitudes, time to really appreciate one of the greatest tennis players of all time while he’s at the top of his game.
We were reminded of that last weekend, because with a spot in the Davis Cup finals up for grabs, and having to play the U.S. Open champion one day after losing a four-set doubles match, Sampras played as well as he can play. And that’s a mouthful.
If you can’t have extreme drama, the next best thing you can see in professional sports is a champion on fire, precise to the point of being near perfect.
It’s something most of them don’t like to admit, as if the mere acknowledgment might be a jinx.
But Sampras had no way around it after a 6-7 (8-6), 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 victory over Patrick Rafter at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center.
Not only did Sampras never allow his serve to be broken, but also never even faced break point. He was more effective on his second-serve points than Rafter was on first-serve points. Sampras won more points at the net than arguably the best serve-and-volley player in the game. He hit 62 winners to Rafter’s 33. In the second set, which Sampras won in 25 minutes, he didn’t make a single unforced error.
Pressed about whether he could have played any better than he did, Sampras finally conceded: “No, I couldn’t play any better. I did everything I can do very well. . . . It’s not easy to play at that level for an entire match. But I pretty much did in the second, third, and fourth sets.”
And just like that, he dismantled the most recently crowned Grand Slam king. Torched him.
I keep hearing American men’s tennis is dead.
I know this because Tony “Catgut” Kornheiser, Washington Post sports columnist, keeps saying it over and over. And he has plenty of people singing backup for him, too.
Except here’s the problem: Sampras is an American. He’s one of ours. And he’s killing people. He’s won 10 Grand Slam titles, which is three more than the man we 30- and 40-somethings believed was a tennis genius, John McEnroe.
Sampras has a well-chronicled problem: He’s boring.
Translated into today’s sports lexicon, “boring” means he doesn’t dye his hair some stupid color, doesn’t scream at linesmen like some Neanderthal, doesn’t make presumptuous commercials about his image, doesn’t swear in public or otherwise make an ass of himself.
If you consistently behave with class and dignity these days, it makes you a bore. No controversy, no hype, no sizzle.
Former U.S. Davis Cup player Donald Dell, for many years friend, then agent, to Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, has finally run across somebody who reminds him of his old friends. “Sampras,” Dell said, “is a throwback. He’s a gentleman first. As a culture we’ve become so wrapped up in controversy and hype. Arthur used to say, ‘I don’t do it with my mouth, I do it with my racket.’
“Sampras is the same way. The way he wants you to judge him is by his results. You could see he was a little embarrassed running around out there with the flag during the celebration. He’s getting a little more extroverted because everyone keeps telling him he has to be.”
Sure enough, even though Sampras looked like he was somewhat eager for the post-match news conference to end, when he left the microphone, he stopped and chatted comfortably with a smaller group of reporters for another 30 minutes.
In an interview with another journalist last weekend, Sampras said, in essence, of the general way that he’s perceived, “What else am I supposed to do?”
The answer, of course, is, “Nothing.”
Ten Grand Slam titles and winning Davis Cup matches for your country ought to be enough for the tennis public.
As a member of the media, I’ll shoulder some blame for showing less interest in Sampras than he deserves.
In the ideal media world we overdose on the Barkleys and Deions, world-class performers and showmen.
But we’ve grown too concerned with the sizzle, which is why the moment somebody enjoys 10 seconds of athletic success he runs out and hires a PR person to maximize marketability, which is how Andre Agassi winds up getting more attention than Sampras.
Does a guy necessarily have to wear a wedding dress or start his own line of athletic apparel to be fully appreciated?
The only athlete more dominant in a sport than Sampras is right now in men’s tennis is Michael Jordan. End of list. And as Dell pointed out, “Sampras, I think, is young enough to win several more Slams.”
The record, in case you’re wondering, belongs to Roy Emerson, who won 12 Grand Slam titles.
For many years, Dell has been a member of the club that subscribes to the view that Rod Laver is the greatest tennis player of all time.
“I’m not so sure anymore,” Dell said. “Sampras has me thinking. He may not have the fastest serve, but look at the placement. Sampras’s greatness is in his controlled power. That’s the secret. And he’s got the best second serve in the game, bar none. Jack Kramer always said you’re only as good as your second serve.” Dell didn’t know it as he spoke, but Sampras won 21 of his 31 second-serve points (68%) against Rafter.
Asked what advice he might have for the ascending Rafter, Sampras smiled and said: “Over the next year, he’s going to feel the pressure. After winning the U.S. Open, he’s something of a marked man. It’s something that comes with the territory.”
It’s a territory Sampras has negotiated better than any male tennis player of his generation. And as he continues to pile up tournament championships and international victories that suggest a higher place in history than many of us thought, it’s possible Sampras will be moving into uncharted territory.