The Ghost of Pete Sampras

The man in the white hat slowly bows his head and wipes sweat from his eyes. His fingernails are chewed raw, his feet are burning, and his eyes — those unforgettable eyes — tell the story of man who was blessed with a gift… and cursed with a burden.

The man in the white hat is America’s Only Hope.

And so America’s Only Hope — a man who was born in Omaha, raised in Austin, and trained in Boca Raton — is here, in a faraway land, staring across the net at a 21-year-old kid from Croatia.

He shakes his head. He rolls his head. He looks on in disbelief.

He throws a towel to the ground. There isn’t much time left.

How did he get here? How did this happen? How?

Once again, he wipes sweat from his eyes. The baking sun beats down. And the Australians in the crowd are silent.

They already know the ending.

Andy Roddick is about to lose again.

**

He is America’s Only Hope. He is the greatest men’s player in a country with more than 300 million people.

And yet, he is a failure.

He is one of only two men to be ranked in the top 10 continuously from 2002 to the present.

And yet, he is a failure.

He is America’s Only Hope — the only American man capable of winning on the biggest stages in tennis.

And yet…

They’ve always measured Andy Roddick against the titans of his era. And, of course, he is lacking. He doesn’t have Federer’s grace. He doesn’t have Nadal’s toughness.

Sometimes, they measure him against his American forebearers. And, of course, he is lacking. He doesn’t have Agassi’s dominant return game. He doesn’t have McEnroe’s intensity.

But Andy Roddick’s biggest weakness — his most glaring flaw — has always been something that he couldn’t control.

Andy Roddick’s greatest flaw hovers over him, haunting him in on the blue courts of Melbourne and the dirt of Roland Garros.

The Ghost chases him around the grass at Wimbledon… and it trails him at the U.S. Open, existing in the fog under the lights of Flushing Meadows.

The ghost is always there. And he can’t do anything about it.

Andy Roddick isn’t Pete Sampras.

***

I think of Pete Sampras every January.

Each January, the Australian Open begins, ushering in another year of tennis.

There is snow on the ground in Kansas, but the sun shines in Oz. The best players in the world descend on Melbourne Park. And as they compete under a blue heaven, battling for hours and hours in the midst of Australia’s golden summer, I think of Pete Sampras.

People will remember Peter Sampras, of course. They’ll have to. He left them no choice.

They’ll remember Sampras, the stoic with a serve for the gods. They’ll remember Sampras, the King of the All-England club, the handsome American with jet-black hair who conquered Wimbledon seven times. And they’ll remember Sampras, the steady foil who spent a decade providing agony for Andre.

They have to remember Agassi and Sampras, the great American tennis rivalry, with its two leading men competing in a theater filled with compelling contradictions.

And when they think of Pete and Andre, they’ll think of Andy and the torch he was supposed to carry.

They’ll think of what Roddick was supposed to be.

And then they’ll think about what Andy has become.

He isn’t Pete the Great. He isn’t Pistol Pete, the greatest American tennis player of our time.

To me, Roddick is fascinating. But I don’t want to forget about Pete.

Of course, history is a funny thing. It vary rarely is an accurate description of the past. Most of the time, it’s an amalgamation – a mish-mash – of people’s thoughts, memories and perceptions.

And when those people are gone, and they take their old, rusty memories with them, we are left with nothing but watered down memories of the past, nothing but old reprints of the Mona Lisa.

So yes, I don’t want to forget about Pete.

***

This week, Roger Federer, perhaps the greatest tennis player who ever swung a forehand, won another match on the blue courts of Melbourne Park. He took down a Russian, Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals of the Australian, and later this week, he’ll play in the semifinals.

With two more victories, Federer will win his 16th Grand Slam title and put an early-season stamp on his case for being the most dominant tennis player of all-time.

His case is overwhelming.

Federer has won 15 Grand Slam titles (6 Wimbledons, 5 U.S. Opens, 3 Australian Opens and one French Open), one ahead of Sampras, who won seven Wimbledons, five U.S. Opens and two Australian Open titles.

Sampras’ last Australian title came in January of 1997, when he beat Spain’s Carlos Moya for his ninth Grand Slam. He was the greatest player in the world then, perhaps the greatest force the game of tennis had ever seen.

His serve was dominating, at times unreturnable, and he complimented his greatest gift with a sledgehammer forehand and an overhead that seemed to ripple the clouds.

It’s hard to believe that that was 12 years ago.

The world was a different place then. Barack Obama was a young Chicagoan serving his first year in the Illinois state senate.
Tiger Woods was a couple of months away from his historic 1997 Master’s victory, and Federer was just 15 years old, a young boy in Switzerland who had only begun to discover his other-worldly talent.

And now, of course, we are in a different time.

The world keeps moving, and tennis balls are hit harder, and America still leans on Roddick — its only hope — while searching for its next generation of tennis stars.

Sampras will turn 39 in August. The world tells him he’s still young, but in tennis, he’s a gargoyle. And all we have left are the memories.

***

To understand my view of Sampras, you have to understand my family. My family was a tennis family. My mom and dad started playing tennis in the 70s as the exercise boom was sweeping the country. They joined a neighborhood racquet club.* My dad played in a men’s group. My mom would play in a women’s league, and they played together in a mixed doubles groups.

*It was called Nall Hills Country Club, named for the housing neighborhood where I grew up. The name was a little ironic, though, because there wasn’t really anything country club about it. It had a handful of outside courts, a decent-sized pool and a small clubhouse. That was about it. No golf course, no grand ballroom, not snooty members or dress codes. It suited us fine. We weren’t really a country club family.

Tennis wasn’t just a sport. It was a weekly event. A way to bond.

Then my older sister came into the world in the late 70s — an era where girls were just beginning to compete in youth sports in large numbers.

My parents aren’t particularly tall people. And perhaps they hoped they had the next Chrissy Evert or Tracy Austin. Anyway, they dragged my sister to the old neighborhood club and put a racquet in her hands.

My brother came next, then another sister, and I finally showed up in 1986. Around that time the old neighborhood club closed its doors. My parents were saddened. They’d made a lot of friends at that club, and they’d played a lot matches on those old outdoor courts.

But we were still a tennis family. So we joined one of those new indoor racquet clubs that I imagine started appearing quite frequently in the late 70s and early 80s.

We spent a lot of time at that club. When I was just beginning to play, I would spend hours at the snackbar. I’d order a Red Cream Soda from the soda fountain, and to this day, I don’t think any soft drink has ever tasted better.

I’d wander around that club all day. I’d watch matches from balcony railings above the courts. And I’d find an open racquetball court and slam forehand after forehand against the wall, pretending to be Sampras or Courier or Michael Chang.

I can still hear the sounds of that indoor club. I can still smell that place.

I can hear the ball being shot out the ball machines. I can still smell the snackbar – that combination of popcorn and thrown together turkey sandwiches and all those other little snackbar smells. I can see dozens of 6-and 7-year-olds hitting nerf tennis balls over tiny portable nets. I can hear the sound of hundreds of perfectly struck forehands… and the echo of a tennis ball striking those heavy black leather curtains that hung behind each court.

And I can hear the voice of my father, sending out strict instructions…

OK, forehand cross-court, backhand down the line, forehand crosscourt, backhand down the line.

We all played junior tennis. Each age group would have a rankings ladder. If you wanted to challenge someone above you, you just called them up and set up the match. On the weekends, the top six players would play the top six from another local club.

Those matches meant everything. We might as well have been playing at Flushing Meadows with the lights on and the whole world watching.

***

Sampras wasn’t supposed to be the great one. I think that’s what I loved about him.

I don’t remember the 1990 U.S. Open. After all, I was only four. I was more interested in crawling around my living room floor, watching Sesame Street and eating macaroni.

But it was at the 1990 U.S. Open that the world first found out about Pete Sampras.

He was just 19 years old. He was tall and slender and he had this rugged swath of pitch-black hair.

The world didn’t quite know what to make up him.

Most people don’t realize this, but he was the 12th seed in that tournament. It was a funny tournament all around. Stefan Edberg was the No. 1 seed; he would get bounced in the first round.

So here was Sampras. Here was this young kid with the big serve and quiet nature. He rolled through the first three rounds in straight sets. He beat Thomas Muster in the fourth round, he defeated the once-great Ivan Lendl in the quarters. Lendl had been to eight straight U.S. Open Finals.

He played an aging John McEnroe in the semi-finals. McEnroe was 31, and he was trying to make one last stand, one last-ditch effort at glory at his hometown tournament.

Sampras knocked out Johnny Mac in four sets.

Then came Andre Agassi in the Finals. Agassi was a whole other story. He was a brash kid from Las Vegas with crazy long hair. He was destined to be the great one, destined to be the next big thing in tennis. He had the look, the personality, he was the heir to McEnroe and Connors.

As you may remember, Agassi was the fourth seed at the U.S. Open so, of course, he was favored over Sampras.

Pete beat Andre in straight sets.

I’ve always wondered how that match affected history. You may say that Pete clearly had more talent than Andre, that he had the bigger serve and the bigger forehand, and that he certainly had the better head.

But let’s just say that Andre wins that Open final. Does Pete still have the better career?

I think he does, but I still wonder, how did that final affect Agassi?

***

It was such a strange event. And every year I get older, it seems to get even stranger.

I’m still not sure why the Davis Cup came to Kansas City. And I’m not sure why they played matches at Kemper Arena.

I mean, the Davis Cup is a worldwide event, and sometime in the early 90s, someone decided that the Davis Cup and Kemper Arena would be a winning combination.

It was either 1991 or 1992. I think it was ’92. Of course, we were a tennis family, so my parents made sure we were there.

I went the first night with my brother and dad. It was the night they played singles.

Jim Courier played the first match and lost. I can’t seem to remember who they were playing.

Agassi played the next match and won. They played Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and Agassi had tears in his eyes as the match ended. It was quite a sight.

Sampras didn’t play that night. I don’t think he played in the doubles the next night either, although I could be wrong.

I wish I would have seen Pete play on that night in Kansas City.

I would never see him play in person.

***

Sampras didn’t win a Grand Slam in 1991 or 1992. Perhaps success had come to soon, to early.

He would say later that he needed those years to figure out how to become No. 1.

In 1993, Sampras began to figure things out. He began to master his serve and volley game, he figured out how to beat Courier, and without a doubt Sampras was the best in the world.

He won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1993 and he won the Australian in 1994.
He won Wimbledon again in 1994 and 1995.

He won the U.S. Open in 1995 and 1996.

From 1993 to 2000 Sampras won a Grand Slam every single year. He won 12 out of the 32 Grand Slams during that time span.

Of course, Federer would come along 10 years later and blow Sampras’ mark out the water, but we didn’t know it at the time.

Sampras was simply the best in the world.

I have so many memories of Sampras. Memories of him dominating Agassi. Pummeling poor Andre in to submission.

“I was pretty blessed in my career to have Pete,” Agassi would say. “In other times, I’ve been cursed by him.”

There was the time in the 1999 Wimbledon Final. Sampras dominated Agassi like he never had before. It was an annihilation. A massacre. Andre simply had no answer for Pete. Nobody did.

“He walked on water today,” Agassi would say.

***

Eventually my family would slowly move away from the game of tennis. We stopped belonging to racquet clubs, and we slowly stopped playing as a family.

My oldest sister did play it in college. And she would eventually coach the game too.

My other sister played in high school. But she did so more out of fun and obligation, than out of love for the game.

My brother and I would focus on other sports – namely baseball and basketball.

Eventually, it became too much. My summer tennis got in the way of baseball. And, of course, baseball and tennis shared the same season – Spring – in high school.

Perhaps that’s why I love Pete so much.

After awhile, he became my strongest connection to the sport.

Watching Sampras on Sunday morning in the Wimbledon final took me back to that old tennis club with the Red Cream Soda and tennis lessons and the sound of ball machines.

***

After a decade of dominating, and a decade of keeping his emotions to himself, Pete finally gave us something in 2000.

He was at Wimbledon. He’d won 12 Grand Slam titles, tied with Roy Emerson for the most ever.

He played Pat Rafter* in the Final. His parents were sitting in the stands. They’d never been to Wimbledon before. Sampras was gunning for his seventh Wimbledon title in eight years.

And here were his parents, these seemingly normal people with a son with these brilliant gifts.

They were the exactly opposite of normal tennis parents. They were hands off, they weren’t overbearing. They didn’t need to be in the limelight.

*There’s a funny story about Rafter and Sampras. Pete was always so cordial, such a gentleman. But one day, at a press conference Pete showed his competitive side. As you probably know, Rafter was a great player from Australia. He did win a couple U.S. Opens. And I’ll always remember the sunscreen he caked on to his cheeks. Anyways, one time a reporter must have been doing a feature on Pat Rafter, and he wanted Sampras to compare himself to Rafter.

“What’s the biggest difference between you and Pat,” the reporter asked.
Sampras, a little perturbed, looked blankly at the poor guy and said, “You mean, other than 10 Grand Slam titles?”

Sampras won, of course. And after the match, he climbed into the stands, found his parents, hugged his father and broke down.

He’d won his 13th Grand Slam, more than anybody in the history of tennis.

His father hugged him back. He cried too.

***

In the 2001 Wimbledon, Sampras returned to Wimbledon to attempt to win his fifth straight title. Instead, he lost to some young 19-year-old kid named Roger Federer. It was a historic passing of torch, except nobody knew it at the time. It was the only tour match they’d ever play.

Eight years later, we have a new perspective.

Federer has been a brilliant Swiss revelation. A powerful storm of grace, skill and humility.

He’s a champion for the ages.

And then there’s Nadal, perhaps the greatest clay-courter who ever lived, and now he’s making his own history.

It’s tough to say how Sampras and Federer would stack up in their prime.

Federer can probably claim to have the most polished, the most refined all-court game.

Unlike Sampras, Federer broke through to win the French last year.

Of course, some people knock Sampras because of his own failures at the French. They call him a two-trick pony. A player who could only be successful on grass and hard courts.

That criticism may be fair. But I don’t know.

I still have this feeling. This feeling that says that if Sampras and Federer were both in their primes, and if they played in the Wimbledon final, Sampras would hang with Federer all day.

***

His career ended just like it began. He stood on center court at Flushing Meadows at the U.S. Open.

On the other side of the net stood Andre, his old nemesis.

That’s where the story ends. An aging Pete beating an aging Andre in the final of the 2002 U.S. Open.

He wouldn’t announce his retirement for another year. It was typical Pete. He always tried to avoid the fanfare, he never wanted to attract too much attention.

After the match, after Pete had held a Grand Slam trophy above his head for the last time, after he had conquered Andre for the last time, after he had hit that serve for the gods one last time, he simply walked off the court.

It was the last tournament he ever played.

**

America’s Only Hope walks off the court in Melbourne, Australia. He is still the only hope.

And yet, Andy Roddick is a symbol — a symbol for a lost generation of American tennis. A generation that couldn’t live up to a legacy of greatness.

They forget sometimes. They forget that Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003.

Of course, that was one year after Sampras’ reign ended. Roddick was supposed to take over.

And now, nearly seven years later, Roddick may never win another Grand Slam.

He lost to Federer in the Wimbledon final in 2009. Roddick would say it was greatest match he ever played.

It wasn’t enough. Federer would win in five sets, 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14.

On Tuesday, he lost to 21-year-old Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals — another excruciating five-set loss.

Afterward, he talked to reporters, and he answered questions about another lost opportunity.

“That’s the way it goes sometimes,” he would say.

And slowly, he started to crack a smile.

And for a moment, the ghost lifted. Andy Roddick isn’t Pete Sampras. And for him — and for all of us — that just might have to be OK.

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