Greatness, pure and simple

Sampras's win last year at the US Open was a postscript, an encore, almost with a purpose. To remind those of us who suggested he retire that we did not understand him still, how deep his talent and professionalism ran.


A tearful Pete Sampras on his way to beating Jim Courier in the 1995 Australian Open. A spectator said "do it for Tim," referring to his coach, Tim Guilikson, who had flown home with a fatal brain tumour. Sampras won this quarter-final 6-7 (4-7), 6-7 (3-7), 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. — Pic. GARY PRIOR/GETTY IMAGES-

When Pete Sampras played, when he served his first ball of the match, it was like hearing the opening bars to the most splendid of symphonies. Of all athletes in the 1990s, for me, he produced the purest, most powerful, music.

I saw Sampras, always, as a classical musician. Classical by virtue of method, because he stayed so true to serve and volley, styling himself on the past; classical because his lines were so clean he seemed like some old textbook sprung to life. His game was not beautiful necessarily but it was neat, and efficient, a masterpiece of simple design. The word immaculate comes to mind.

Some might say he played from the same sheet music, time and again, and that it was repetitive. But that is only one interpretation. There is another: and it is that whenever called to perform on the big occasion so rarely did he strike an incorrect chord, so infrequently did he hit the wrong note. No player in the Open era, and only one man ever before, Rod Laver, can we say that of.

As a man, too, like his music, he seemed a throwback to the past. On court at least, he seemed as unsoiled and unspoilt as the orthodox white shirts he sheathed himself in, not rock star but pianist at a recital. He did not berate umpires, or yell to the Gods, and there was an absurdity to the charge that he was boring: he was playing tennis like it had never been played, surely that in itself was sufficient? His racket spoke enough; what could there be to add?

Perhaps he had willed himself not to say too much, not to reveal himself, to keep from interrupting his mission to make history. And it was impossible not to admire his pursuit of it, so single-minded was it, so pure, so unstoppable. We had seen, now and then, Becker uncomfortable with fame, McEnroe overreacting, Edberg struggling with timidity, Wilander bored by it all, but Pete, he would learn not to let anything impede his quest. We saw only the cold-hearted assassinations, but how much professionalism did it take, how much sacrifice, how much discipline, and commitment, and self-control, so that when the moment came, he met it with an unblinking excellence. His tennis made headlines, not him.

And this marble-faced look of his, this restriction of unwarranted movements to hanging his tongue out or using two fingers to sling sweat off his forehead, had an unnerving effect. Opponents said they never knew from Pete's face what he was thinking, whether he was nervous, scared, confused, tired. In the absence of apparent fear, he was evoking it.

Occasionally, when through tiredness or some over-accumulation of emotion he opened the window to his soul, it was even more fascinating. The stoic unmasked. It came when he wept at the Australian Open when a spectator said "do it for Tim," referring to his coach, Tim Guilikson, who had flown home with a fatal brain tumour. It happened against Alex Corretja at the US Open, against the Russians in the Davis Cup in Russia, where he cried and vomited as his body cramped, somehow rising to win as if the mental pain of possible defeat was so much more agonising than the physical trauma he was undergoing.

He was not the perfect man, of course. Some felt that the Corretja episode was embroidered with a little acting. He was very occasionally egotistical in the interview room. Once asked the difference between him and Patrick Rafter, he disdainfully replied: "Ten Grand Slams" and Rafter would say Sampras was loath to give respect to other players.

But mostly, he carried quietly, and not unpleasantly, the arrogance of a man who could not conceive anyone on the planet had his measure. As Agassi once put it to the New York Times, "The one thing that Pete has over me, or I shouldn't say over me, but that I wish I had, is such a simple approach and raw belief that he is just better than everybody."

Of course, his skills were stunning, a hypnotic blend of athlete and craftsman; there was mainly no flourish or exaggeration to his game, it was an advertisement of efficient mechanics, a sort of measured, proficient mayhem. Every shot was manufactured not to entertain but for effect. You never got the feeling Sampras was indulging himself, having fun; he was there to win.

And it is here, in this matter of winning, that we see Sampras with greatest clarity. People would say, for instance, that when he was in trouble, all he did was unfurl that menacing serve and all was well. And, of course, he did, time and again, but what was being obscured in the process was his will, his fearful self-belief, that he would find the right serve when it mattered, that he would hit the right line, that he would win the point.

In this, in his ability to sustain a high level repeatedly, to summon a shot, the appropriate shot, under pressure, not so much hindered by the moment but challenged by it, he had no peer. Every day, every match, everywhere, he sustained his tryst with excellence, he did not let his genius down. With Sampras you always got greatness, you were guaranteed greatness. It is as if he knew no other way.

It is why he has more Slams (14) than Agassi (8) and Courier (4) put together, or Becker (6) and Edberg (6), and just one short of Connors (8) and McEnroe (7) jointly. It is why no man, only him, ended the year as No.1 six times. It is why for all the talk of Agassi being his equal, by virtue of winning all four Slams, of the five times they met in Grand Slam finals, Agassi won once. It is why in his prime, between 1993-99, he played 12 Grand Slam finals and lost just once.

His win last year at the US Open was a postscript, an encore, almost with a purpose. To remind those of us who suggested he retire that we did not understand him still, how deep his talent and professionalism ran, that after 13 Slams we hadn't figured out that he understood more about winning in tennis than any man before.

When he returned this year, arriving at the US Open for the first time unshackled by ambition, nothing left to prove, to anyone or himself, a free man finally so to speak, he was stunned by the crowd's ovation, as if he had never really heard them before so locked into his cocoon of his concentration he had been, so overcome by the respect, and emotion, that seemed to sweep down from the stands, that he bent over and he wept.

Perhaps the crowd was signalling that they finally understood what it had taken for him to get so far, that they held in their hearts the knowledge they had watched the best player they'd ever see. Sampras had won so much, and now, finally, he had won them over, too.

Then, son Christian in hand, he was gone, and the tennis began again, and its sound was beautiful, too, but its sound was different. It had to be. For when Pete went, the music, as we knew it, had died.