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The skinny on Sampras

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Posted: Monday March 05, 2001 1:51 PM


Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will answer your tennis questions every Monday. Click here to send a question.

I was totally overwhelmed by the response generated by last week's question about Pete Sampras' popularity and lack thereof. By early Monday afternoon, dozens of you had weighed in. In all, I received more than 100 e-mails, the vast majority of them thoughtful, persuasive and passionate. Thanks to everyone who wrote in.

The responses were entirely too numerous to reprint here, but they tended to break into two general camps. Sampras supporters contend that he is "misunderstood," and "underappreciated." Any disdain is thinly veiled "jealousy" or "sour grapes" from fans of Andre Agassi, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl or whoever, unable to countenance Sampras' dominance. If he's unpopular, it's because his understated ways are anomalous in this age of He Hate Me, Temptation Island and Toni Braxton's Grammy "dress." What's more, as Klaas of Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote: "Undefinables frustrate us. You call it the X factor; Pete has this in spades, and it may be the skill which has won him more matches than anything else. We've all watched him play poorly and win. What allows him to do this? It's undefinable. Do I get to play poorly and still win? Nope. He makes it look easy, at least compared to the amount of effort someone like Agassi has to put into winning barely half the number of Grand Slams."

The other faction was all over the map in its critiques. The terms "robot" and "hangdog look" were bandied about like so many shot balls. Several of you wrote: "I want to like him but I just can't." Others, predictably, were quick to mention the Davis Cup apathy, his petulance toward Pat Rafter, and his foibles on clay. A smattering of other observations: "He never seems like he cares"; "He's dull as dishwater"; "He's like Lendl, only hairier." I could go on, but they start to get kind of mean and personal.

A few thoughts. First, in Sampras' defense, at some point we need to acknowledge that sustained excellence comes at a price. It takes a certain type of personality to remain among the top five players in a grueling, solitary, year-round sport for more than a decade. John McEnroe, Borg, Lendl and even the beloved Agassi don't approach Sampras' half-life. Given his preternatural drive and focus, how can we possibly be surprised to learn that his outside interests don't seem to extend far beyond watching Lakers games and SportsCenter, and playing golf? Saying Sampras is a "robot" off the court is like saying: "Gee, that Joshua Bell is a great violinist. But he has no crossover dribble, never learned Mandarin and doesn't have a pilot's license or CPA certification."

My other observation: More than any other player, Sampras' comportment is open to wide interpretation. What is deadpan, DiMaggio- esque dignity to his fans is apathy, detached arrogance and emotional vacancy to others. What is smooth and blissfully efficient tennis to supporters is somnolence and listlessness to detractors. Even his health issues fit this division. The pro-Sampras group asserts that his achievements are all the more impressive given his innate frailty and his anemia -- to which he never attributes his losses. Sampras critics complain that his health is always an issue, win or lose, and that real champions aren't forever flirting with the injured reserve.

Finally, collectively your responses confirm a truism of contemporary sports: Fans want to feel a connection to athletes. We want to feel as though, in some small way, we're partners in the performance. More than seeing slam-dunk overheads and 130-mph serves down the T, we need to know our presence matters to you. (If you ask me, this is one reason women's sports have captured our imagination.) For as great a player as he is, Sampras often seems to want nothing to do with us. Thunderous applause doesn't penetrate his focus, nor does a chant of "Let's go, Pete." Sampras could just as easily be playing on the back courts at Palos Verdes High School -- and, one suspects, his demeanor would be the same. He disses us, so we diss him back.

The delicious, underlying irony in all of this, of course, is that the player who takes pains to avoid controversy seems to arouse more of it than any other. Anyway, thanks for the tremendous response. We'll do it again with another topic sometime soon.

Question time:

I agree that the "New Balls" campaign has grown on me. "New Balls" obviously doesn't work for the women, but if the WTA Tour needed to come up with a catchy slogan, what would it be?
—Richard, Portland, Ore.

Sorry if some of these get lost on our non-American readers. Consider yourselves lucky. Ten suggestions:

10. She Hate Me.

9. Order Now and Get This Free Richard Williams Greatest Rants CD.

8. Leggo My Ego.

7. (Provided Hank Williams Jr. is available ) Are Y'all Ready for Some Bathroom Breaks? or All My Rowdy Friends are Kournikova Tonight.

6. I'm Too Sexy for This Court Assignment

5. Our Year-End Championships Are Now Prepared With No MSG.

4. The WTA Tour: It's Management Group-tastic

3. We Have Nothing to Do With ISL.

2. If You Happen to Bump into Arnon Milchan, Could You Tell Him to Call?

1. New Kournik-ovaries, Please

What is your opinion of Magui Serna? I remember she beat Steffi Graf at the Canadian Open a few years back, but I haven't heard much from her since.
—Doug Tyler, Toronto

Perhaps unfairly, Serna (pronounced MAU-wee SARE-nuh) was hailed as the "next Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario" when she broke into the tour, a short and stout Spanish baseliner with loopy, baroque, topspin-heavy strokes. She's hasn't quite lived up to that billing, but she's still done quite well for herself. Having reached as high as No. 22, she's a dangerous player, a nifty shotmaker, and a solid backcourt terrier who fits squarely in that "dangerous floater" category. Though her best surface is clay, she's reached at least the fourth round of each Slam, including the quarters of Wimbledon in 2000. What's more, she's easy to root for because she always seems to be enjoying herself when she plays.

Looking to the future of American women's tennis, who do you think are the up-and-coming players? Any with Grand Slam potential about to make a breakthrough? What about Meghann Shaughnessy? Kristina Brandi? Meilen Tu? Do you think American women are going to be able to continue their dominance of the top 10 in years to come?
—R. Almeida, Washington, D.C.

There are these two sisters, Venus and Serena Williams, who might be worth keeping an eye on.

Seriously, your question is a good one. The five Americans in the top 10 -- the Williamses, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati -- get all the publicity, but there is a significant cadre of less-heralded Yankettes worth watching. The three you named are all legit, Shaughnessy in particular. Very quietly she has become a top-20 player -- and if her play last week in her hometown tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., is any indication, it's with a bullet. Tu has been playing awfully well for going on a year now; Brie Rippner, age 21, is on the cusp of the top 50; Lilia Osterloh is a grinder who competes well; Jennifer Hopkins has a bright future; and when she turns pro, Stanford standout Laura Granville will be worth watching. While the media -- self included -- have been preoccupied lamenting the dearth of American male prospects to succeed Sampras and Agassi, a solid Generation Next of American women has emerged.

Bjorn Borg is my favorite player and the best clay-courter I've ever seen. Can you explain how he could win the French (six times) and Wimbledon (five times) but not the U.S. Open? Was the Swedish assassin psyched out? I say Borg in his prime takes Agassi and Sampras; he has the best ground strokes ever, killer passing shots, an underrated serve, and nerves of steel. What do you think?
—Peter Fleming, Atlanta

I'm surprised your former doubles partner, John McEnroe, isn't your favorite player. (Sorry. I'm sure if you had a dollar for every time someone said that, you could buy your own line of Donnays.) Borg was absolutely psyched out at the U.S. Open. On paper, it's inexplicable that he never won in Queens. Unlike Sampras on clay or Lendl on grass, it's not as though the surface disagreed with his game -- he was, after all a four-time runner-up. If Borg had won one of those finals, he'd be a legitimate candidate to join Laver and Sampras in the Greatest Ever debate.

What's up with the Williams sisters' Avon commercials? The only word to come immediately to mind is bizarre, and I don't think that is anywhere near doing those ads (in)justice. Can this possibly be the image Venus, Serena, Avon and women's tennis wish to portray?
—Mike, Blue Bell, Pa.

I don't mind the commercials, though I wish they had more to do with tennis.

About your perfect player list, wouldn't you rather use Serena Williams' serve? Venus' serve is faster, but the compliments end there. Serena's is just as fast plus has variety and consistency. I personally think the younger Williams sister has the best serve of any female player in the Open era. Hope I'm not being too picky.
—Clinton Ireigbe, Dallas

Not too picky at all. A few of you made the same point. While it's true that Serena's serve is more fluid and consistent, I'll stick with Venus. Those extra 5-10 mph make a big difference, and after Wimbledon last summer she added variety and unpredictability.

Why do you never answer questions about Gustavo Kuerten? Do you have something against him? Is it because he is higher ranked than your Marat Safin? I've noticed that you love Marat. Is it because he is good looking, or because he plays good tennis?
—Giovanni Mancine, Milan, Italy

For some reason, I get this all the time and I'm never quite sure what to say. If readers were to ask questions about Kuerten, I'd be more than happy to respond. (For example: What do you think of his picture on the cover of the latest Tennis Magazine? How many Grand Slam matches has he won since Roland Garros? Will he become the first player to win all nine Master Series events? Answers: Swell, three and yes.) As it stands, you guys rarely ask about him, thus I rarely write about him.

Amelie Mauresmo has won two of the four competitions she has entered this season. Will she be one to look out for the rest of 2001?
—Elke, Koln, Germany

Absolutely. Mauresmo has indeed been a nice surprise so far this year. I was impressed with her in Australia as well. Playing far from her best tennis, she still pushed Venus Williams to a third set in their Round of 16 match. My proverbial "sources" say that with Sylvie Bourdon now out of the picture, Mauresmo is much more focused. The key to sustaining her success, as always, is her health. If her back holds up, there's no reason she's not a top-10 player by year's end.

What's the verdict on The Simpsons tennis episode?
—Nadia, Durham, N.C.

Pretty weak, I thought. A lot of lame tennis jokes and the standard errors in depiction (i.e., players serving from the service line). On the other hand, last week's send-up on boy bands was a borderline classic.

Click here to send a question or comment to Jon Wertheim.

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