In 1989 Fischer traveled with the 18-year-old Sampras to the U.S. Open. The two separated a few weeks afterward because of a bitter dispute over Fischer's role and compensation, and they hardly spoke for more than three years. After Sampras won his first Wimbledon, in 1993, Fischer finally buckled and called him. The relationship warmed, but Sampras wouldn't allow Fischer near his matches. Last year Fischer, in New York during the U.S. Open, asked Sampras for permission to come to one of his matches and watch. Sampras said no.
"Just the fact that he'd be there would be a distraction," Sampras says. "Pete's so honest with me. Almost too honest."
The CoreStates Center is half empty. There are no TV cameras. Sampras's rivalry with Andre Agassi has sputtered, along with Agassi's game, but while fans might be losing interest in tennis, Sampras is anything but bored. "To the surprise of everyone who knew Pete as a junior, he's got an insatiable desire to win," says former No. 1 Jim Courier, who once had a strong rivalry with Sampras but has lost eight of their last 10 matches. "There are 18-year-olds around the world scrambling to get a piece of the pie, and they're good. If you don't watch your ass, they're going to take some of your pie. Pete's not giving away any of his."
The night after beating Filippini, Sampras disposes of Jonas Bjorkman. Then, over the weekend, he puts away Sjeng Schalken, Doug Flach and hungry, aggressive Patrick Rafter. The field is weak, and though Sampras loses two sets during the tournament, there's never cause for panic. Between last November and early March, Sampras went on a roll that began with a win over No. 6 Boris Becker at the ATP World Championship in Hannover, Germany, and included a victory over No. 5 Thomas Muster in Melbourne in January. Sampras has won the last two Grand Slam titles—the 1996 U.S. Open and the '97 Australian. In the former he erased No. 3 Michael Chang in straight sets in the final to pass John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl on the alltime Grand Slam singles victory list and come within two titles of Laver and Bjorn Borg, who both have 11, and three of Roy Emerson, who holds the record. Only the clay in Paris continues to bedevil him. If Sampras wins the French Open in June, his place as the best player of the Open era will be secure.
"He's one of the great players of all time," says Borg, a six-time winner in Paris. "He has a very good chance to win a few more Grand Slam tournaments."
Becker's praise is even less qualified. "I have played him on different surfaces, and I've experienced something I didn't experience with the likes of McEnroe or Lendl or even Borg," he said in Australia. "He's able to adapt on different surfaces in a way no one has done before. He's able to play very aggressive tennis even on a clay court or a slow hard court. And his tennis doesn't have any flaws. He's probably better than anybody who ever played the game."
But comparing Sampras with players who competed 30 or more years ago is tough. The difference in racket technology alone makes it nearly impossible; then there was the battle over professionalism that locked many greats out of Grand Slam events before the Open era began in 1968. In his prime, between the years he won his two Slams, Laver was barred from 21 Slam tournaments. But he believes that today the game is more competitive, if less refined, than ever. And after naming fellow Aussies Emerson, Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall—as well as Pancho Gonzales, Borg, Connors and McEnroe—as the best he ever saw, Laver says Sampras "is in the same group. And they're not that far apart. His temperament in big matches is phenomenal. And the look of his game is magical."
Not that the world has taken much notice. Sampras plays superb tennis, a fast and powerful game in a whiz-bang age, yet he inspires no rush to the turnstiles. In Philadelphia he was the marquee name in what once had been a prestigious event, but attendance during the week was 20,000 less than it had been just two years earlier; crowds of 4,500 and less were the norm, and even the final didn't come close to drawing a capacity crowd of 8,300. During Sampras's match with Bjorkman, one group of fans was so loud and unaware of what was happening on the court that Sampras drilled a ball up into their section to get their attention. "They quieted down after that," he said later.
The fact is, men's tennis is rightly perceived as Sampras and a vanilla universe of second-raters. The 29-year-old Becker nurses one injury after another, Agassi is in one of his periodic flameouts, and young turks such as Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Mark Philippoussis have yet to impose themselves.
There's no more telling comment on the state of the game—and of Sampras's image—than Agassi's latest commercial for Nike. The ad, made after Sampras's dramatic, vomit-marred quarterfinal win over Alex Corretja in the U.S. Open and released during the Australian Open, celebrates a player who has won one third as many Grand Slam titles as Sampras and hasn't won a major in two years. Sampras is a Nike client too, not to mention one of the few alltime greats playing in his prime in any sport. But he is oddly invisible.