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

Natural Born Killer

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

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Somewhere in the carefully guarded recesses of Pete Sampras's personality there is a witty conversationalist and a bit of a neurotic and a very testy guy and all those other things he is accused of not being. They're down there elbowing for space with the nice, clean-cut young man. Every now and then, one of them will win out—like when Sampras goes out to dinner and has to wait for his meal. He starts squirming in his chair, and a swift 10 minutes later those famous good manners have totally frayed and he is saying, "Where's the damn food?"

Sampras would probably have about two hemorrhages if you suggested that he was anything other than a "nice, normal young guy," as he puts it, because he's very into appearances. Sure, Sampras is a nice guy, and he certainly looks normal. But it's as his brother, Gus, says, "Just because Pete is nice to you doesn't mean he really likes you."

Nice, normal guys do not have five Grand Slam tennis titles by age 23 and make slick commercials with Tony Bennett singing in the background. They were not prodigies from age seven, practically created by a mad scientist. The• do not call George Steinbrenner and Vitas Gerulaitis friends, nor do they appear on David Letterman. They do not pursue immortality, and they do not treat losing a tennis match like a death in the family. Sure, Sampras always shakes hands, and he never throws his racket. "But underneath it all," he says, "I'm trying to kick your ass. In a nice way."

If Sampras were just a nice, normal guy, he would probably be off somewhere with the rest of his generation, writhing in a mosh pit or hacking through cyberspace. Instead he strolled the deserted grounds of Wimbledon before the start of this year's tournament in a pair of checkered shorts and geeky blue boating shoes. Sampras rounded a corner and came upon Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall having a hit. Sampras has been invoking the names of Laver and Rosewall, comparing himself to them, since he was a boy.

Sampras put down his bag and pulled out a racket. He thumped it against his hand. At the invitation of Laver and Rosewall, he pulled on a pair of Nikes, no socks, and took the court, breaking only about 40 club rules on attire. Laver sent a backhand crosscourt. Sampras streaked after it and launched a vintage running forehand reply that ticked the chalk. "That'll do," Laver said.

Sampras's insistence on modeling himself after Laver, immortal for his achievements and not his haircut, is one reason there has been such a rush to declare him a bore. In that rush, the whole point of Sampras has been lost. Sampras is a driven, even obsessed young man who is brazenly reaching for a piece of history and doing so with the kind of physical grace and talent that comes along once in a generation, found only in the Lavers, Michael Jordans, Joe Montanas and Wayne Gretzkys.

So stop comparing Sampras to his peers. He doesn't have any. Guys like second-ranked Goran Ivanisevic are irrelevant—Sampras beat Ivanisevic in straight sets in the Wimbledon final, and going into the U.S. Open this week, Sampras's lead over Ivanisevic in the rankings was a staggering 2,223 points. Sampras has already equaled Boris Becker's five Grand Slam titles, is well on his way to John McEnroe's seven and Jimmy Connors's eight and is almost halfway to the goal, Laver's 11. Sampras's only real competition is the record book. "The older I get," he says, "the more I believe that."

But achievement is not chic. Rebellion is. And Sampras has never been rebellious. The closest he came was a little youthful alienation, which explains why Catcher in the Rye is his favorite book and his motto comes from Holden Caulfield: "Don't ever tell anybody anything." Because Sampras is private and ambitious, he has gotten a reputation as empty. It is unjustified. "Nobody," says his golfing buddy Gerulaitis, "is that uncomplicated."

The way Sampras sees it, his very squareness makes him the height of iconoclasm. While everybody shouts, Sampras wants to whisper. He isn't going to have a public catharsis just so we can all feel better about making stars out of loud but empty suits. That's boring? "You know, sometimes I think maybe I'm not the boring one," Sampras says. Right there he proves he is smarter than you thought.

Sampras isn't going to parade his neuroses, but he has them. Take his sleep. Don't ever, under any circumstances, mess with his sleep. "I'm definitely neurotic about that," he says. "I'm a world-class sleeper. I'm obsessed."

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