Pete Sampras served like a wizard, covered the court better than a tarpaulin, zapped ground strokes with felonious intent and breezed to his fourth Wimbledon singles title in five years, creeping ever closer to that golden place in tennis history where only Rod Laver and a couple of other guys reside. Sampras is everything the U.S. public says it wants in its sports heroes—gifted, honorable, humble, handsome—which is why the citizenry doesn't like him much. Of course the fault isn't in the star but in the fans. On Sunday, Sampras ran over a French guy named C�dric, but unless the champion changes his placid ways, he will never be da man.
Now, given his prodigious talents, Sampras might have a shot at manhood, but he eliminates himself from consideration with his reluctance to question line calls. (Even when he protests, it's only with a cocked eyebrow and an elaborate stage whisper.) He gives short, correct victory speeches and generally comports himself as if he would be at home at the Queen's court as well as Centre Court. He has an attitude, but it is what used to be called a good, healthy attitude, not an attitude. Sampras has 10 Grand Slam singles titles, but he is woefully shy of italics—unlike, say, Andre Agassi.
Agassi is not merely da man, he is also first-ballot da man Hall of Fame. Even before he got all swooshed out two years ago, Agassi was throwing his sweaty shirts into the stands. He was a hot player with serious hair and flashy commercials. The public flocked right to him. It took its psychic capital and bet it all on Agassi's bandannaed head because while Sampras looked like a stylish tennis player, Agassi had style, and that seemed more important. Of course Agassi withdrew from Wimbledon this year. He has withdrawn from three tournaments since May, and he hasn't won an event since the ATP Championship last August. The only time anyone sees Agassi on the tennis court these days is when he's diving to retrieve a shot for some soft-drink dudes. Someday when he tells his grandkids about the majors, he will be able to tick them off: Nike, Canon, Mountain Dew....
John Daly is definitely all man, a golfer who took the cure even if his game didn't. Here was a guy who could play not only 18 holes but also the 19th. Grip it and rip it. Americans took one look at Daly's victory in the 1991 PGA Championship and spent a month's rent on a driver with a head the size of a cantaloupe. When Daly cracked his drives, he practically invited you next to the ropes to bellow You da man! Are you going to yell You da man! at Tom Lehman? He wears Dockers. People who wear Dockers can be lots of things—except, by definition, da men. Nick Price, Steve Elkington and all these other golfers were hitting fairways and greens, but there's only so much dull excellence the public will swallow. Give folks 330-yard drives and the occasional trashed motel room any day. Daly was at the U.S. Open in June, although you had to run to spot him before he abandoned his clubs and caddie in the second round. He hasn't been seen on the Tour since.
Dennis Rodman, now he is clearly da man. Or is it da woman! The public bought his antics, bought his books. Or at least it did until Oprah Winfrey, the most influential literary critic in the U.S., banned him from her show. Rodman has been a rebel, a rebounder, a self-mutilator and so many other things Americans hold dear, which is why he still gets on TV sometimes, as in the cameo appearances he made for the Chicago Bulls during the NBA Finals.
The gospel-spouting Evander Holyfield is the heavyweight champion, but he wasn't the betting favorite in Las Vegas last month against Mike Tyson, da man with an appetite for more than mayhem. Iron Mike was the baddest dude on the planet, so it hardly mattered that he had dented nothing but tomato cans since resuming his career in August '95 after serving three years for rape. Tyson has everlasting mandom, a state of grace that is bound to excite the paying public when his suspension for biting Holyfield is lifted and he resuscitates his career again.
Sometimes American fans back the right guy—Michael Jordan (not that he oozes humility), Wayne Gretzky, Cal Ripken Jr., Reggie White and, lately, Tiger Woods, whose bearing so far has precluded those cries of You da man!—but too often they choose the glitz and not the gifts, the bizarre image rather than the ideals. Poor, boring Pete Sampras. In a perfect world his wondrous Wimbledon would be cause for celebration, not more obits on the state of tennis.
Maybe the moral of the story is, If something about an athlete makes you want to scream You da man! chances are he isn't.