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The Passion Of Pete
S.L. Price
May 26, 1997
PETE SAMPRAS may pretend that he doesn't care, but he fiercely wants to be remembered as the greatest ever
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May 26, 1997

The Passion Of Pete

PETE SAMPRAS may pretend that he doesn't care, but he fiercely wants to be remembered as the greatest ever

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McEnroe does. "That was pretty tremendous acting," he says. "Very good. If you're that out of it, you don't serve 120 miles an hour. No one does that. He must know something I don't."

Sampras insists he simply drank a soda during the match and paid for it. As for Courier, Sampras says, "I think he's pissed that I beat him every time. I don't do any gamesmanship. I don't pretend I'm tired and all of a sudden have a burst of energy. I know Jim's said that. Sour grapes."

There's an edge to his voice. Sampras cares about this because the topic is his tennis and the subtext is respect, and those are the only things worth worrying about. If Sampras were really the indifferent jock he pretends to be, he would be only a talented underachiever capable of astonishing moments; he would be Goran Ivanisevic. But he is actually a dueling mix of drive and uninterest, and this combination may make him, before his career is done, the best ever.

Why? Because he doesn't care about the things that make hell out of the lives of many tennis stars: sycophants, discos, celebrity, politics and cash. He didn't get tangled up in the usual tensions between tennis parents and management, because as soon as he turned pro, at 17, he told his father that his days as agent-scheduler-handler were over. "Pete fired him," Fischer says, and while this is only technically true—Sam, then a mechanical engineer with NASA, had neither the expertise nor the desire to run his son's ship long-term—it is a very cool boy who can tell his dad to step aside.

"There were too many cooks in the kitchen," Sampras says. "I told him he's better off when he's my father, not my agent. We get along much better when he's not involved in contracts and deals."

Sampras doesn't sightsee. After eight years of globetrotting, he's no cosmopolitan. At heart he is still small-time. He is suspicious of anyone who doesn't, as he puts it, "know himself." He sees Courier, the product of small-town Florida, speaking Spanish and French in the locker room and finds it fraudulent. Sampras is simplicity: bowl of cereal, three hours of practice, round of golf, sleep.

"He doesn't enjoy the things most other players enjoy," says Annacone. "He doesn't like to be pampered. He wants to be treated like me and you. He wants to go have a burger and watch the Sixers on TV. He doesn't want people to say yes-yes-yes He's about substance, not about how well he can talk or how flamboyant he is. He'? about what he can do when you put him in a competitive field with a tennis racket in his hand. That's what he wants."

That's all he's wanted since his father took him at age seven to meet Fischer at a racket club near their home in Palos Verdes Calif. It took Fischer, the pediatrician about 30 seconds to realize that Pete wasn't like other kids. "He walked different, he moved different," Fischer says. "Everything was smoother, more graceful, more coordinated. He had incredible accuracy His good shots would go 18 inches inside the line, and his mishits would hit the line."

Still, without Fischer, Sampras says, "I don't know what I would've done, I don't know what I would've been.' Fischer farmed him out to Southern California tennis gurus—Robert Lansdorp for his forehand, Del Little for his footwork and Larry Easley for his volley While other kids were stampeding to buy the latest tennis technology, Fischer insisted that Pete stay with a less forgiving wooden racket until he was 13, to help him develop perfect strokes Even today his lead-weighted graphite is closer in character to Laver's lumber than to a high-powered wide-body; strung at 80 pounds, it has a sweet spot the size of a dime.

And Sampras's serve, clocked at 120 mph even with a wooden racket, is as celebrated for its control as for its power. Fischer may have delegated everything else, but he took full responsibility for teaching Pete how to serve. With no worry about racket-head speed, Fischer focused on deception: He would wait until Pete tossed the ball and only then yell where he wanted him to hit it. That's why nothing in Sampras's deliver) gives his serve away, and that is the rock upon which his whole game stands. "Maybe the best serve I've ever seen," says McEnroe.

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