Lord knows, he kept up his end of the bargain. Ever since Pete Sampras won his first major championship, as a 19-year-old at the 1990 U.S. Open, he did everything a sports hero is supposed to. Not only did he set records, dominate his era and treat opponents and officials with unwavering respect, but he also produced more moments suitable for a hokey storybook than anyone could expect from a man so guarded and shy.
Sampras won the 1995 Australian Open despite weeping on-court over his coach Tim Gullikson's fatal illness, won the '95 Davis Cup final for his country despite being carried off the court two days earlier with sore hamstrings and won the '96 U.S. Open despite being so dehydrated and sick with an upset stomach that he vomited and nearly collapsed. He set a men's Grand Slam record with his 13th title at Wimbledon in 2000, and, of course, in last year's U.S. Open final, he rallied after the two bleakest years of his career to beat archrival Andre Agassi—his first finals victim at Flushing Meadow—in the last match of his professional life.
Sampras's run was sublime and surreal, the greatest in the history of men's tennis. And yet, though the cynics held their tongues on Monday, when at 32 he announced his retirement at Arthur Ashe Stadium, for many it was not enough. The curious fact is that Sampras was hardly beloved. The compliments came with complaints: Sampras didn't sell. Sampras didn't jack ratings. Sampras was too boring, too colorless, too expressionless, too...too...good.
He was always the argument you couldn't win. Tennis purists loved his skill, naturally, and they will unhesitatingly declare Sampras's second serve, his running forehand and his leaping overhead as treasures that belong under museum glass. But for a public that didn't grow up playing, tennis becomes charismatic only when rackets are flying or fists are pumping or new ground in fashion is being broken. It doesn't matter that beloved figures like Joe Montana and Tiger Woods have proved themselves duller, colder characters than Sampras; the former competed in a sport America loves and the latter in a game America plays. Sampras arrived when the tennis boom was but a distant echo. His timing was abysmal.
Worse still, in a sound-bite age, he couldn't explain himself. Sampras didn't possess Agassi's glib-ness and perfect recall of matches; he'd been a tennis prodigy, isolated from the socializing caldron of high school and to this day has few close friends apart from his wife, Bridget. He spent most of his adult life obscenely rich yet feeling unappreciated, alone with a talent he didn't fully understand. After winning Wimbledon in 1998 to tie Bjorn Bong's record of five titles, he spoke of how "melancholy" the moment made him, of how his greatness seemed to exist wholly apart from his control, of how uncomfortable he was with what he was able to do. No one has been more mystified by Sampras than Sampras himself.
Yet in a world as spun and packaged as professional tennis, all that made for a rare honesty. Growing up, Sampras's role models were blank-faced assassins like Borg and Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver, and he tried carrying himself at a similar remove. But his emotions, his physical lapses embarrassed him. He would hunch over during each crisis, trying to hide with millions of eyes boring into his back.
Sampras had no choice: His body spoke for him, and it never lied. You knew every tear, every illness, every moment on court was true. You knew winning gave him a release he needed nearly as much as breathing. You knew, when it ended on Monday, that he was happy, and that part of him now could never be happy again.