SI Vault
 
Natural Born Killer
Sally Jenkins
September 05, 1994
Pete Sampras seems aloof, but he burns to destroy all comers on the court
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 05, 1994

Natural Born Killer

Pete Sampras seems aloof, but he burns to destroy all comers on the court

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

Just because Sampras has simple tastes docs not mean he is dull, as suggested by his relationship with Gerulaitis, or Uncle Vitas, as he wryly calls him. Sampras, the supposed introvert, and 40-year-old Gerulaitis, the mouthy, flamboyant former champion, are an unlikely pair. Yet the friendship that began on a driving range in Florida a few years ago has become a mainstay for Sampras, who had lacked a close pal because of his nomadic existence on the tour since age 16. "I couldn't tell you I had any close friends in high school," Sampras says. "You need them. Vitas is someone I can talk to."

Sampras is wary of relationships. "I meet a lot of ass-kissers," he says. Gerulaitis is not just a confidant; he even did some informal coaching of Sampras at the Italian Open this spring when his full-time coach, Tim Gullikson, was on vacation. Sampras won, crushing Becker. "You know, I'm really tired of Pete getting knocked for being too quiet," Gerulaitis says. "It's just his way of coping. Nowadays if you don't have some weird slant on your life, people think something's wrong."

Sampras's strongest relationship is with Mulcahy, a 30-year-old second-year law student at Stetson University in Deland, Fla. Sampras and Mulcahy have endured their share of snide remarks and disapproving relatives since they met shortly after he won his first U.S. Open, in 1990, when he was 19 and she was 26. Many, including Sampras's family, initially questioned Mulcahy's motives in taking up with Sampras, especially since she once dated his former agent.

It was Sampras's first real romance. "Delaina was the first girl that I felt comfortable with," he says. "She's independent, and she understands. I don't have to entertain her." The relationship has had an undeniably good effect on Sampras. He not only has won four more Grand Slam tournament titles but also is talking about getting his high school equivalency degree. It is a subject on which Mulcahy is adamant and about which Sampras feels guilty, having left school after his junior year.

Much of Sampras's education, in tennis and otherwise, was influenced by Dr. Pete Fischer, a neonatologist in Palos Verdes, Calif., who was his coach and tutor. Every champion has one person he can never satisfy, and for Sampras it is Fischer, a fascinating man who makes a living by saving premature babies but whose avocation is tennis. If it has taken awhile for Sampras to show his engaging side, the blame lies partly with Fischer, who taught him there were just three acceptable statements on a tennis court: "In, out, and the score."

Fischer began working with Sampras when Sampras was nine. Fischer insisted Sampras betray no emotion on the court because, he believes, "the scariest guys are the guys who never change expression." Fischer ran film of Laver in the Sampras dining room and set his 11 Grand Slam titles as Pete's goal. He switched him from a two-handed to a one-handed backhand, converted him from a baseliner to a serve and volleyer, and developed that unreadable service motion.

But they parted when Sampras was 18 and at the peak of his Holden Caulfield stage. Sampras was being rude and, worse, not training. Fischer confronted him. "The only acceptable ranking for you is Number 1," Fischer said. Pete's father, Sotorios, defended his son. "What if he wants to be Number 5?" he said. "Unacceptable," said Fischer. They also haggled over money and Fischer's refusal to travel with Pete. The result was that the pair barely spoke until Sampras won his first major championship, the 1990 U.S. Open, at 19. Fischer called to congratulate him.

Still Sampras cannot satisfy Fischer. On a recent visit after a European swing during which Sampras won the Italian Open and Wimbledon but lost at Roland Garros, the opening line from Fischer was, "You know, Pete, you won't really be one of the alltime greats until you've won the French." Says Sampras, amused and angry at the same time, "Nothing is ever good enough for that guy. I come home from winning Wimbledon, and he says, 'You're getting there.' "

People have always felt they needed to cattle-prod Sampras, to jab a finger in his face and say, Hey! You could play rings around them all, even Connors and McEnroe. You 're the great Grand Slam hope, so start rubbing the sleep out of your eyes. Champions, alter all, are supposed to burn. If Sampras burns, it is with a long, slow flame.

"I look straight down, I stick my tongue out, I hit a great shot and just walk off," he says. "It looks casual, like I'm not really interested. When I'm playing well, I look like a genius, and when I'm not, people think I'm tanking it out there."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4