In an extraordinary season we miss an extraordinary man

It is that extraordinary tennis time when spring meshes into summer, when the clay is the colour of blood that seemingly must be spilt to win there and grass is the colour of envy felt most keenly by those who have never owned a volley.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

It is that extraordinary tennis time when spring meshes into summer, when the clay is the colour of blood that seemingly must be spilt to win there and grass is the colour of envy felt most keenly by those who have never owned a volley.

It is a time, and who thought it would ever come, to imagine a summer without Pete Sampras and in a way it would have been fitting to farewell him and fete him, but then that was never his style. He came quietly and has gone without fuss either, a man who met victory simply with an upraised arm and a smile, his celebration as clean as his game. — Pic MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES-

It is a time of croissants and cunning, Pimms and passion, when spectators laze with their shirts pulled off under a sleepy Parisian sun but are sternly reminded across the channel that such saratorial excesses are just not allowed. Indeed, at Wimbledon, it is never good form to lose one's shirt, especially on court.

It is a time when tennis finds its most complete expression. When rallies at Roland Garros appear like extended conversations between old friends, or like the writing of a small play, where each shot is part of a grander plot, each top-spinning forehand full of subterfuge, each drop shot posing a delicate, inventive question. In Wimbledon, they are more English and business-like, there is no time for such tomfoolery. Grass court exchanges have a non-nonsense quality to them, and rackets speak in monosyllables and clipped tones. Ace is the sort of word they like best: short and to the point.

It is a time when posers stay home and champions find themselves, and you know your place in the world by the locker room you are allotted. It is a time when even grand egos shrink rapidly for every time a champion passes the statues of Paris' Musketeers, or walks by the sculpture of Fred Perry, they suddenly look less worthy. Suddenly, great players would give up their private plane, the hotel suites, the cover of TIME, to own such a record.

It is a time of discovery, tennis' most testing month, when players find their repertoire, their character, their ambitions, their nerve, laid out for all to see. Can Hewitt win the French and Ferrero more than the odd round at Wimbledon; is Philippoussis an all-round talent or an all-round poser; does Federer have the patience for clay and Moya the backswing for grass; is Safin a chance at both and Blake a chance at none; has Roddick a volley stable enough and Agassi the stamina to last both distances?

In a month (once the gap between the French and Wimbledon was two weeks, now as a concession to an inability to adapt it is four), all is revealed: the clay courters and their "grass is for cows" whine, the hard courters and their "clay is for potters" whinge. Each one, of course, would give a limb to win at the other, for every man in his dreams sees himself as the complete player. More excuses will be found in this time than at an end of term parent-teacher meeting.

It is a time when a player can go closer than anywhere else into the embrace of perfection, for to win on clay, then grass, is unarguable testimony to all-round class. One country you slide sideways, the other you slither forward; in one the serve means little, in another everything; in one the volley is an option at the other a necessity; in one your swing can come from the heavens in the other it must be abbreviated; in one you torture slowly, at the other executions must be swift. In glib terms on clay you construct, on grass you destroy.

It is a time thus when we understand again with a sharper clarity the majesty of a young Swede of Artic aloofness and flaming ambition. Three years in succession — 1978/79/80 — he won both titles, and 23 years have passed and it is a feat not replicated. So much for all that talk of baseliners and grass; common theory, Borg proved, is no obstacle for genius.

But here too arrives another irony. Of all the men in those 23 years who have come close, like McEnroe (1984: French finalist, Wimbledon champion), Stefan Edberg (1989: French and Wimbledon finalist), Jim Courier (1993: French and Wimbledon finalist), Andre Agassi (1999: French champion, Wimbledon finalist), only one man has flirted with that improbability twice. Ivan ``the Unbending'' Lendl, who in 1986 and 1987, won the French but lost finals on grass. Perhaps he, too, was not as inflexible as we decided.

It is a time lightened by the tread of young heroes but a time also heavy with nostalgia. It is a time, most of all, when this year we shall miss a familiar presence, a man who challenged his generation, himself and history, whose failure on one side of the channel was as spectacular as his success on the other.

It is a time, and who thought it would ever come, to imagine a summer without Pete and in a way it would have been fitting to farewell him and fete him, but then that was never his style. He came quietly and has gone without fuss either, a man who met victory simply with an upraised arm and a smile, his celebration as clean as his game. A man unfamiliar with excess, with chest-thumping and falling on his back, and we will miss that.

We will miss his tongue dangling from his mouth, as if he were relishing the taste of the battle at hand. All champions have some signature, from Becker and his bouncing off the ball on the ground with his racket, to McEnroe fidgeting like a thief under interrogation, to Borg's bandaged fingers plucking strings and tuning his racket, to Agassi's pigeon-toed quick walk between points. This was Pete's signature.

We will miss his serve, a triumph of mechanics, a masterpiece of design, and we could look at it, again and again, like Tendulkar's straight drive, or Ernie Els' swing, and never tire of its priceless combination of elegance and effect.

We will miss the fact that at Roland Garros the sweat seemed to soil his halo, while at Wimbledon it made it glisten, and ponder how he was so fallible one place and infallible the next. Even Gods have feet of clay. Yet, in his undying belief every year that he could win Paris, that not so much the opponent but the surface could be mastered, in his refusal to skip it or give up the ghost, in his eventually useless defiance, we saw more of his humanness than anywhere else.

We will miss his immaculate control, a man whose expression was limited to his game, who kept his apparently foul-mouth for his private life, whose reserved nature on court made his tears at the Australian Open in 1995 even more poignant. He had sharp words for Rafter once after a US Open loss, and was gently accused of acting occasionally by his peers, but mostly he was an anachronism — athlete and gentleman and champion. Such things do exist though Hewitt will have us believe otherwise.

As spring embraces summer, nothing it seems will be the same again. But already our ears are filled with groans and grunts, shuffling feet and singing rackets, and as tennis' most powerful symphony begins again, all hymns to Sampras will quickly be drowned out. Sport moves on as it must and soon there will be another champion, another chapter of history.