Connors pounced. "What? Don't tell me that," he fumed "That's the biggest crock of dump. Being the U.S. Open champ is what I've lived for. II these guys are relieved at losing, something is wrong with the game...and wrong with them."
Connors still uses the same rant to his advantage: His tour sells personalities, fun, contact with the fans. The new players? "It's more important to them to play the tennis," Connors says in Naples. "It is a big business. I'm a tennis player, don't bother me for anything else. But going back, it was important not only to play but to create excitement for the game any way you could."
Connors never names names, but one young guy takes it personally. "See what Connors said?" someone asks Sampras the next morning, during a break in his workout at the Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa. He has seen it, all right. Arthur Ashe once said Connors was "everyone's favorite a———," and Sampras now spits out the same sentiment—without the "favorite."
It puzzles him. All his life Sampras was told to keep his emotions in check, never throw a racket, play like Laver, and he learned his lesson so well that, whenever he and his parents saw McEnroe on television in a frothy-mouthed tirade, Sampras was embarrassed. Growing up, he heard how the world was sickened by tennis brats. He was raised to be the opposite, to erase his personality. His is the antimystique. 'Half the time he looks dead, like he's not trying—that's one thing about his aura that's so hard to grasp," says Paul Annacone, Sampras's coach. "Watch him walk down the street. He's like this." Anna-cone hunches his back and drops his head. "He never looks like Superman."
Which was fine for the year after Sampras won his first U.S. Open, and the 39-year-old Connors hadn't yet rocketed through Flushing Meadows. But when Sampras won Wimbledon in 1993 and the British tabloids responded with snores, he began to suspect that someone had changed the rules on him. Even now he can't escape the feeling that his biggest opponent is not on the other side of the net. It's Jimbo and all those other colorful, maniacal egos of the '70s and '80s—McEnroe and Ilie Nastase and the late Vitas Gerulaitis—who still own the heart of the U.S. fan. "I shouldn't have to apologize for the way I am," Sampras says. "I walk into press conferences and people say, 'Pete, the sport's going down, racket sales are down, balls are going down, what do you think you should do?' Well, what do you think I'm going to do? Ever since I was eight, I've always wanted to just play and win. I could be a jerk and get a lot more publicity, but that's not who I am.
"It baffled me at first. I didn't understand what I was doing wrong. But I'm not going to change for anybody. I think what I'm doing is fine. I really don't care. I don't."
He does. He cares so much that sometimes nothing—not the calm, balanced upbringing he got from his father, Sam, and his mother, Georgia; not the stern lessons on deportment drilled into him by Fischer for nine years; not the impassive facade he wears—can keep the caring contained. For someone who tries so hard to project insouciance, Sampras has provided tennis with some of its most emotional moments: Sampras crying on the court at the 1995 Australian Open for his dying coach, Tim Gullikson, and going on to win; Sampras collapsing with cramps at the '95 Davis Cup final in Russia and coming back to account for every point in a U.S. victory; the dehydrated Sampras throwing up in the fifth-set tiebreaker against Corretja last September, saving match point with a desperate volley, uncorking a second-serve ace at 7-7 and holding on to win. He is, in fact, so highly strung that at times his body simply can't take it. If anything, Sampras cares too much.
This is nothing new. When he was 13, he played what is believed to be the longest three-set match in juniors history, against TJ. Middleton in Kalamazoo, Mich., losing 18-16 in the third. Middleton lost his next match and was relegated, along with Sampras, to the consolation round. "Middleton defaulted because he couldn't move," Fischer says. "Pete played and won, but he noticed pain in his right wrist. We X-rayed it: He had won with a broken wrist. Can Pete be tough? Pete can be tough."
Not that Sampras understands a bit of this. He has tried to figure out why his interior life often spills out before millions. "And I don't know what to think!" Sampras shouts. "As introverted as I am...in the arena, where I really want to be introverted, I open up. I don't know if everything builds up inside me and I'm overwhelmed by emotion, but these things show more than I want. I was embarrassed when I was carried off in Moscow. I was embarrassed in Australia. I've always had this shield in front of me that people couldn't get through. I thought I was pretty strong. Then I was embarrassed at the U.S. Open because people thought I planned the whole thing."
That's right. There's a strain of thought in tennis that Sampras faked his condition against Corretja, that no one who said, "That's the worst I've ever felt on the tennis court," as Sampras later did, could have popped off supersonic serves. At the 1996 French Open, Courier felt victimized by what he calls Sampras's "droopy-dog play." After falling behind 2-0 in sets in their quarterfinal match, a seemingly exhausted Sampras came back to beat Courier in five. As for the Corretja match, "that was an extremely gutsy effort," Courier says. "You can't fake throwing up. But if you're throwing up, how can you hit serves 120 miles an hour? That's a little contradictory. I don't know what to think."