It's time. Pete Sampras moves out of the tunnel and into the harsh light, his upper body swaying to its usual rocking rhythm, head craned forward, mouth slightly ajar. It is 8:48 on a Wednesday night in March, and the best tennis player in the world has come to Philadelphia to take his first shot at the only history that matters to him: the monumental record of Rod Laver. The announcer booms out Sampras's name, and the sparse crowd applauds politely, but he gives no response. It is as if he is alone, and the place is tomb silent. He sits down in his courtside chair, looks up, stops. He can't believe what his eyes have done to him. Sampras wanted to be casual about this, look around, slowly get a feel for the new CoreStates Center. But he couldn't help himself. His glance flew like a dart to one face, there in the front row, the face of the man who set him off on this amazing run that has lasted 17 years. Already Sampras :an hear Pete Fischer's voice, always saying the same thing, no matter how many Grand Slam tournaments Sampras has won, no matter what time of year it is, no matter what city he's in: You don't want an asterisk next to your name, Pete. You've got to win the French.
Sampras looks away, picks up his racket. A shiver passes through his stomach, and now he is nervous, more nervous than he has been in a long time. This is stupid. For four years Sampras has finished the season ranked No. 1, and his straight-set demolition of Spain's Carlos Moya in the 1997 Australian Open final gave him his ninth Grand Slam singles title. Sampras plays at a level far above that of anyone else in the game. But now here's Fischer—not even a coach or much of a player, just a tennis-crazed retired Southern California pediatrician—sitting there, watching Sampras play in a pro tournament for the first time in eight years, and it is too much.
Memories start floating through Sampras's mind: Fischer, the unpaid brains behind his game, insisting that 14-year-old Pete demolish his baseline game and become a serve-and-volleyer. Fischer ending all argument with a smug, "Trust me." Fischer refusing to console young Pete whenever he came off the court shattered by a loss and instead demanding to know only why Pete went with that backhand crosscourt at 4-4, 15-40. And, always, Fischer drilling into Sampras—even when he was a gangly, unmotivated teen taking loss after loss in junior tournaments—Remember: Your competition is Laver.
Laver? Twenty-two years ago Laver, the only male to march to two Grand Slams (in 1962 and '69), won his 47th and last title. Tonight, against 79th-ranked Marcelo Filippini, Sampras begins the quest for his 47th. Just five wins in Philadelphia, and after a decade of chasing, Sampras can finally grab hold of Laver's shirttail.
Sampras serves first, and, as always, his movement is a lesson in classic tennis form: ball bounced once, left toe lifted, left arm sweeping up as easily and inevitably as the second hand on a clock. Ace down the T, 117 mph, unreadable, untouched. Fifteen-love. Fischer taught him that.
It's impossible to see in his play, but Sampras is something of a mess. He can't stop thinking about Fischer: always pushing, never satisfied, the only person whose approval Sampras still needs. Once or twice Sampras glances over at him; Fischer looks the other way. Understand: Early in his career the best quality Sampras possessed was the ability to do what he was told. He is devoted to his parents, but he still refers to "the way Pete raised me."
"Listen: I didn't plan this," Sampras says. "Pete Fischer planned this for me."
The first set is too easy. Sampras holds his serve while probing Filippini's for four games; then, after blasting three service winners and an ace to go up 5-4, he breaks Filippini with a series of punishing forehands, a patient rally from the baseline and, finally, a whipping forehand crosscourt winner.
Sampras isn't winded, and in the next set he is simply crushing. With his usual deadpan demeanor, he covers the court quickly and gracefully, fires 120-mph serves and produces a moment of beauty: Up 4-1, 0-30, he takes a ball at his ankles, skips sideways and blasts a forehand down the line; Filippini gets it, only to set Sampras up for an overhead smash. Sampras ends the game with a backhand volley Hipped lightly crosscourt, where Filippini isn't.
It is, in short, a masterly display of all-court tennis, but Sampras knows better than to think that Fischer is satisfied. "I expect him to be perfect," Fischer says later with a laugh. "When he isn't, I know it, and he knows I know it."