- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

NEW YORK — Pete Sampras deserved better.

And no, we’re not talking about the schmaltzy opening ceremony that preceded Sampras’ U.S. Open farewell tribute last night, a Havarti-shaming affair hosted by reluctant resident Alec Baldwin and starring the cast of “Movin’ Out,” a musical set to the excruciatingly maudlin strains of Baby Boomer poet laureate Billy Joel.

Frankly, we all deserve better than that. Well, maybe not Joel.

Still, as arguably the greatest player in the history of his sport, Sampras deserved better from us — the fans, the press, the mostly indifferent public. Anyone and everyone who waited until the end to appreciate what Sampras accomplished. All of us who failed to celebrate him in his prime, equating tennis with tantrums while dismissing the 14-time Grand Slam winner as a bushy-browed automaton, too yawn-inducing for words.

Which is not to say that Sampras wasn’t boring. He was. Gloriously so.

Ambrose Bierce defined a bore as “a person who talks when you wish him to listen.” By that standard, Sampras was nearly soporific. For years, he let his unparalleled game speak for itself, hard work and talent producing excellence that few can comprehend, let alone relate to. On the court, Sampras rarely showed emotion, tearing up on only two occasions — once following the death of his coach and friend Tim Gullikson, again after winning his record-breaking Slam at Wimbledon. Everything else he kept inside, humanity masked by a hangdog countenance.

“He didn’t really make a big fuss about things,” says Andy Roddick. “He just made his name by winning.”

But winning wasn’t enough. Not for the rest of us. We wanted Sampras to listen — to our needs, our wants, our almost pathological demand for “personality.” Whatever that means. In most sports, stone-faced stoicism is considered admirable; in tennis, it’s seen as a shortcoming. Weaned on the pleading histrionics and love-me mugging of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, tennis fans adore stars who play to the crowd, turning center court into center stage.

Sampras, however, was never one for the former. Let alone the latter. Put him in an empty stadium, it seemed, and he would be just as happy. His rare theatrical flourishes inevitably came off as forced, if not downright silly. Sampras once wept while receiving an ESPY. During last year’s tournament, he punctuated an emphatic point with a goofy cry of, “yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!” Even his nickname, “Pistol Pete,” never really stuck — in part because it was borrowed, in part because plain ol’ Pete was plenty sufficient, at least for a guy who will never, ever be the subject of an “E! True Hollywood Story” (though his wife has a shot).

To put it another way: In a sport where living through your children is par for the course — and overbearing tennis parents are as common as ball boys — Sampras’ parents rarely saw their son play in person. He didn’t lean on them. He didn’t lean on us.

Likewise, Sampras’ bang-bang style didn’t always inspire. Relentless and methodical, he smothered opponents with aces and volleys, squeezing the drama from every point. A tremendous athlete, he made tennis look easy. Too easy, as if effort was optional. With McEnroe, the sport was art, the handiwork of a troubled genius; with Connors, it was boxing, body blows and snarling will; with Andre Agassi, it was bionic, the province of hand-eye savants. Sampras, on the other hand, moved with the lanky ease of John Wayne on the Ponderosa: Clean, efficient, without a hint of wasted motion. To anyone who has ever clambered out onto a court and tried to hit a simple forehand, Sampras’ gifts were astonishing; to everyone else, they were ho-hum.

Speaking of ho-hum, Sampras’ remarkable consistency too often was taken for granted. While his peers — notably Agassi — sputtered and soared, Sampras simply won. Seven straight Wimbledon titles. Six consecutive seasons at No. 1. With every triumph, the extraordinary became everyday. And Sampras became a little less sympathetic — the star quarterback who marries the prom queen, gets straight A’s, goes to med school, cures cancer and passes away happy and in bed, surrounded by dozens of adoring grandchildren. Half of them astronauts.

“The guy ruined parts of my career,” says Todd Martin, only half-joking.

From his dominance to his quiet demeanor, Sampras never courted our attention. He was too busy courting greatness. Standing in Ashe Stadium last night, his infant son in his arms, basking in a long and heartfelt standing ovation, Sampras welled up — the man who deserved better, finally getting his due. Boring never felt so good.

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