The limits to Pete Sampras's heroics were defined in the first half hour of his match against Andrei Chesnokov last Friday afternoon at the indoor Olympic Stadium in Moscow. A voice came over the public-address system and requested in English that the crowd, "as a courtesy to the players, please shut off all mobile telephones." The No. 1-ranked player in tennis had arrived too late to slay any ideological dragons. They all were talking to their brokers.
Facts were facts. This was the beep-beep capitalist present.
One, two, three decades ago, anytime until as recently as six years ago, the work Sampras performed last weekend in leading the U.S. to a 3-2 victory over Russia in this year's Davis Cup finals would have ranked him right up there with the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team in cold war competitive glory. He would have been a homebred, well-fed testament to the virtues of the free-enterprise system and apple pie. Instead, he was merely the gallant warrior who refused to quit, carried off the court at the end of his three-hour, 38-minute, five-set win over Chesnokov, cramped and pained, yet returning the next day to team with Todd Martin to take the doubles and yet again the next day to be almost invincible in a 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 win over Russia's best player, 21-year-old Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
Wouldn't Richard Nixon, sports fan and president, have smiled in the '60s or '70s? Ronald Reagan would have immediately sent an invitation to the White House in the Star Wars '80s for such a triumph. But the hammers and sickles are long gone from the walls, and the daughters of the sex-bomb double agents now distribute free samples of Coca-Cola and vodka rather than look for microfilm stashed behind potted plants. Det�nte may be good for the world at large, but it has taken the edge off sports drama.
"I guess we're all the same now," U.S. coach Tom Gullikson said. "We're all out there looking for the same dollars."
Sampras, who has won more of those dollars than any other player this year, was not even supposed to be a big part of the finals. With the Russians choosing clay as the surface, he suggested to Gullikson that Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, both with games better suited to the slow surface, play the singles matches. Sampras would play only the doubles with Martin. However, when the chest muscle that Agassi injured during the Davis Cup semifinals against Sweden in late September failed to heal in time, plans changed. Sampras moved to the singles, and Richey Reneberg was called on to team with Martin in the doubles.
"This is a team event," Sampras said. "The idea is to get three points in the best way possible. I told Tom I would do anything he wanted."
The Russians had decided that clay was their big ally. Last year they had played host to Sweden in the finals and lost 4-1 on a hard surface. This year they brought Chesnokov, a clay specialist, into the singles matches with Kafelnikov, who is ranked sixth in the world. They spread the dirt on half the floor of the mammoth stadium, which was built for the 1980 Olympics, and went to work. Slow tennis was good. Slower tennis was better. The Russians apparently watered down the court so heavily the night before their semifinal against Germany that the International Tennis Federation fined them $25,000 for making the surface unplayable. The referee ordered the court to be dried out, but the only drying equipment available was six hair dryers borrowed from the Olympic Penta Hotel next door. With no extension cords for the hair dryers and only two electrical outlets, the court remained a lovely, slow mess. Russia won 3-2, Chesnokov taking the final match in a five-set marathon over Michael Stich.
That Sampras was in and Agassi was out—even though he arrived to sit on the bench and cheer—was viewed as good news in Russia. Kafelnikov said that the Americans had "given away" the doubles and that the big worry was Courier. Uh-oh.
"I don't know why he would say that," said Gullikson, whose twin brother, Tim, stricken with brain cancer, has been Sampras's longtime coach. "I guess they don't know Pete. I would take him on my side for one-on-one tennis, two-on-two, three-on-three, any surface. I would take him for golf."