Pistol Pete

*Quick housekeeping note. In case you didn’t notice. Rustin and I combined blogs. We’re still working on getting this site to look cool, but hopefully we’ll have all the bugs out soon. On to the post…

The phone call from Pete Sampras was supposed to arrive at 12:10. Not noon.

“He’s very regimented, always right on time,” his PR guy said.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Sampras was coming to Dallas for an exhibition match against Todd Martin. They play tonight.

As the de facto tennis writer for our paper, I got the assignment (ran in the paper on Thursday). Of course I crave writing these stories. Since about the 2005 U.S. Open, when James Blake had his coming out party, I’ve enjoyed tennis as much as any sport, perhaps except college basketball.

And it’s strange, I seem to levitate more toward tennis with each passing year, each passing Grand Slam. This September I watched at least one match every day during the U.S. Open. Maybe it was because I didn’t have to waste my time doing any homework, or because of the great storylines of Caroline Wozniacki, Melanie Oudin and of course, Roger Federer. I’m not sure. But I watched more tennis than I ever have and read every store there was to read on SI.com.

Anyways, Sampras’ reign ended long before I became a true follower. But I still knew about him. I want to say my first memory of watching tennis involved him. It’s quite fuzzy, but I remember seeing a guy with brown, curly hair playing on TV and then later saying he was my favorite player.

Because of this, because of his 14 Grand Slams and because well, I’m 22 and still new to this writing business, I fretted about the conversation I would be having with Sampras.

I sometimes get nervous before I interview high school cross country coaches. And a tennis legend was going to call my cell phone.

Then I heard that comment from his agent. This made it infinitesimally worse. Yeah, of course I knew Sampras was the silent assassin. He would rock his opponents to sleep before attacking when the match got too close and then say four words about it if he was in a talkative mood. He was great, but he was an enigma. He was either aloof or just quiet.

This scheduled 12:10 thing made it seem like he would call in a hurry, answer questions with short sentences and announce that he had to go after five minutes.

The night before the scheduled interview, I jotted down several questions – something I always do but not as strictly as I did for this. That morning, I arrived to work at about 9:30 and made a few phone calls for some other assignments.

At about 10:30, my phone rang, flashing a 310 area code on the screen. That’s Los Angeles.*

*Why do I know that area code by heart? It must be from this Ludacris song. I’m still upset he didn’t mention the 913, or at least the 816 or 785.

“Hey Mark,” the voice said. “This is Pete. Hope this isn’t too early for you.”

The most regimented man in tennis called me almost two hours before his schedule. He had just dropped off his oldest child at school.

For about 20 minutes, I asked questions. He answered them and went off on his own stories, laughing a few times while telling them.
In sports writing, you’re not supposed to admire or really, get anxious talking to anyone, but when it’s one of the all-time tennis greats, you get nervous that you’re talking to him, and you get nervous that he could come off as too big-time.

Sampras didn’t necessarily ever have a reputation of being hard to deal with, or even having a mean streak, like say, Michael Jordan. But he was never quite open to the public. He was kind of a mystery man.

Because of that and the 12:10 call and warning from his PR guy, I thought this Sampras interview could have gone either way. Any person, especially one as famous and busy as Sampras, could have cut short an interview or not taken it seriously with a small-time, rookie journalist.

He didn’t. He may not have genuinely cared, but it sure seemed like he did.

The fact that Sampras seems to be a great guy shouldn’t rock the world as great news. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter. He played sports well and still puts on shows at exhibitions.

But to know he does that and cares about the public, well, doesn’t that make the sports world shine a little brighter for everyone?

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