After practice Pete would be shown grainy Super 8 films of the stone-faced Laver and Rosewall playing complete tennis. The Australians didn't act like McEnroe or Connors or Becker; there was no ego, no look-at-me! in their games. Pete was taught: Only the sport matters. More: Winning Grand Slams matters most.
This is, of course, a fallacy in our age. Connors knows better than anyone else that the tennis boom of the 1970s had less to do with great play than with outsized personalities; without that, the sport wouldn't have crossed over to the mainstream. For a long time Sampras didn't understand that, but he does now, and he feels like a man out of place, living in the wrong time. The understated Borg was never asked to carry the game or explain why he wasn't a spoiled terror. "I wish I was playing in the Connors-McEnroe-Borg era, when they had more personalities," Sampras says. "They had the rivalries, and there are times I wish I was part of that. At other times I wish I was part of the Laver-Rosewall era, because image and society and media were different then. They just cared about the tennis."
Sampras is rich. He has a great life, and he knows it. But he will also, if pressed, admit that his core beliefs have been challenged by the current age of image and spin. He believes in the past, but he came of age in the 1990s, and the fact that he knows, knows he possesses the most complete arsenal in tennis history doesn't help. The sniping by Connors and others has left him with a small, hard nugget of insecurity, a feeling that outside tennis circles his achievements matter little. At a celebrity golf tournament last July he got shock after shock when, one by one, Michael Jordan, Dan Marino, John Elway and Mario Lemieux said hello. "I always looked at myself as if no one knew who I was," Sampras says. "And they...they knew."
That nugget got hammered deep under his skin last fall when Sampras's own sneaker company, Nike, began filming that commercial with Agassi and offered Sampras a cameo. Sampras couldn't believe it. He had watched Agassi's visibility skyrocket as his game declined. Meanwhile, Sampras had become the player of his era. A cameo? He took it as a slap and turned Nike down. It was as if his tennis didn't matter. Sampras interpreted Nike's attitude toward him as, to quote Agassi's parting line in the commercial, "Nice game. You suck."
"It's about respect," Sampras says. "It said to me that Nike wasn't really sure what to do with me. I was disappointed."
Recently Nike has made amends. This month Sampras began filming spots for a Nike campaign built around his passion for tennis. Even before that, however, he had perspective. When he feels slighted, he thinks of Tim Gullikson's dying last May of brain cancer, and it hits him: He's gone. "To see someone die in front of you and to miss him.... Doing a Nike commercial isn't the most important thing in life," Sampras says. Or he sits in his living room and looks at the trophies lining the shelves. "Everything comes and goes," he says, waving a hand at the four U.S. Open, three Wimbledon and two Australian cups. "And those are what's going to be left."
And when that's not enough, he has his car. This is Sampras's one extravagance, a 1996 silver $80,000 Porsche 4S Carrera, the kind of machine that sounds like God humming. Sampras's house is no mansion, and he lives off sandwiches from Subway. But behind the wheel he indulges the big-timer impulse he squelches elsewhere. His ego is all over the road: Sampras drives the way Connors plays. He wears tiny black Ray-Bans. He doesn't steer so much as swagger: swerving onto the grass to make his own lane when there are too many cars ahead, drifting into the opposite lane and scaring the hell out of a school-bus driver. He looks right and swings left, and he's gone.
Sampras pulls onto Country Road 581 outside Tampa, where he once pushed the Porsche to 135 mph, but today is different. Today he's looming close behind a pickup, left wheels riding the yellow line like an ace down the T...waiting...now's his chance, he's out and cutting around the truck, passing the careful Previa and the banged-up Nissan in front of it, getting up to 90 in a 55 zone. Soon he will buy a faster, more powerful car, a turbo. But this one will do fine for now.
This is ugly. It's 2:45 on a Florida afternoon and 87° in the shade—but Sampras isn't in the shade. He's pumping his legs high under a savage sun, running back and forth across a field. His tongue is out, sweat pours down his back. His breathing sounds like that of a horse on the homestretch. "Forty-five seconds," says Saddle-brook strength and conditioning coach Mike Nishihara. "Eight more of those." Sampras looks the way he looked at the end of his match with Corretja. "Eight?" he says.
Sampras is in the best shape of his life. Since October he has been working with Nishihara 60 to 90 minutes a day—after 90 to 150 minutes of rallying with Saddle-brook pro Jimmy Brown. Sampras needs this. Last year, he says, he hit the wall too many times, and he's determined that it not happen again. The long baseline rallies in Paris demand that he arrive primed, and his showing last year, when he reached the semifinals, told him he can win at Roland Garros. "I have to win the French to be considered the greatest ever," he says. "If I don't? It's a strike against me. But let's be realistic: I can win there."