If he doesn't, Sampras says, it will be only because he is beaten, not because he runs out of steam. Sampras's illness against Corretja sparked speculation that he suffers from a form of anemia and that this malady had caused his breakdowns in long matches. There was talk that he had checked into the Mayo Clinic for a complete physical. Sampras says he never did. There was no reason to. He says he and other members of his family suffer from thalassemia minor, a condition that can inhibit the blood's ability to carry oxygen and that is common to people of Mediterranean extraction, but it has never had any effect on the tennis court. His only concession to the disease is an extra steak or three a week. "It had nothing to do with what happened at the U.S. Open," Sampras says. He never got himself checked out after the tournament because, he says, "I knew what I had to do: Get my ass in shape. I know what happened. I didn't do any weights the last few years, I didn't do any bike. I wasn't in bad shape, but I wasn't in top shape. And I could get by."
Early in his career, just getting by was fine with Sampras. At the beginning of 1992 he was ranked sixth in the world and happy about it. Then he lost the U.S. Open final to Stefan Ed-berg and was stunned by how horrible that felt; for months afterward he found himself kicking off blankets, replaying points. Even today he upbraids himself for not having 10 major titles. Since then, with the guidance of Gullikson and now Annacone, Sampras has worked to plug every hole in his game: spotty ground strokes, a predictable backhand, halfhearted volleys and, now, conditioning. Pushed, especially by Agassi, two years ago, Sampras became smarter at working points, less dependent on his serve. He has added a dependable slice backhand and shored up his service return. He has no weaknesses.
"That's the sign of a champion: Each year you fill another chink in the armor," says McEnroe. "He may not have as much ability as a couple of guys [in the past]—and I say only a couple—and he may not be as fit as others, but he has both. It's very rare. He has almost all the shots, and he's worked hard. He's capable of doing anything."
Except, in the biggest matches, losing. Sampras's 9-2 record in Grand Slam finals is the best of any great player in history. Nobody—not Bill Tilden, Don Budge, John Newcombe, Emerson, Laver, Borg, not even Connors or McEnroe—has a better winning percentage than Sampras when it matters most. Funny: When, at the Nuveen press conference, Connors tells why he most admires Gonzales, there is no talk of entertainment or showmanship. "He was a bad sonofabitch," Connors says. "He'd do anything, stand there for six hours, to win a match." Connors could well have been describing Sampras today.
"I need to win," Sampras said after being upset by Sergi Bruguera in the semifinals of the Lipton Championships in March. "I didn't play the way I should, and when I lose now...it's worse than just losing. It's like a death."
He has come a long way from his "bag of bricks" days. Even Connors admits it. "What I like is that he's prepared to play day after day after day," Connors says. "I would like to see him have stiffer competition. He doesn't have Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl—three, possibly four, of the greatest playing at the same time. But what I like about him is that he doesn't care who he plays. He still goes out and performs."
Sampras, after the initial shock of hearing a compliment from Connors, agrees. He misses the Agassi of two years ago. He feels Agassi gave him one of the best matches of his life, in the 1995 U.S. Open final, and he wants more. But if no one is going to push him, he's going to keep pushing himself. Sampras is 25, the age at which most modern players begin to fade, yet he is motivated and fresh. "I am in my prime right now," he says. "The story's not over.
"I think about Pete [Fischer], and he was right about everything he said since I was 10 years old. Everything. Maybe we both were lucky, but I feel even stronger about winning the majors than I did before. Winning a Slam...you feel like you're making history. Pete had no idea what it was like, but I do, and he was right. It's not about money. It's about making history. I thought it all went in one ear and out the other, but now I know he was spot-on.
"He keeps talking about the French. All you need is the French. And I say, 'Well, what about the other ones?' Another Wimbledon, another U.S. Open is what it's all about."