Pete Sampras's career of grit and low-key stardom

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Until the past few years, when the Pete Sampras story resembled a soap opera - the aging warrior under the siege of time and his own records - millions of Americans had no clue about what made this guy such absorbing TV.

Tennis wonks knew all about Pete Sampras and what made him the durable superstar that he was for so long and so honorably.

Their number could be measured in the hundreds of thousands. They could tell you about his high-octane serve, his quiet but obsessive competitive fire, his court presence, and his unswerving devotion to the codes of the athlete:

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Play if your legs are killing you, but play.

Play if you can barely stand in your exhaustion, but play.

The aficionados of the game know Pete Sampras's tennis from baseline to baseline. But the affection and the respect they are pouring out on him this week at the US Open, where he was to be honored Monday night, might explain it. There are people who take vacations from work to watch US Open tennis.

And then there are the millions who normally will surf into a match here and there on TV because John McEnroe is probably the best thing going today among the oracles of television sports today. These are people who have watched Pete Sampras two or three times a year, in cameo, in highlights, maybe for two or three sets.

But they are also people who can identify a one-in-a-million athlete when they see one. And what was that quality, apart from those amazing 14 Grand Slams and all of those Wimbledons and that unforgettable, take-no-prisoners match with Andre Agassi in last year's US Open?

The quality was absolute, unyielding commitment.

It reflected in his every move on the tennis court; in his tenacity in every point; in his will, his guts, and, of course, in his marvelous tennis. He was the embodiment of a creed that athletes themselves - the good ones - revere. The athlete will tell you, "here's a guy who brings it." Utter commitment on every play, no matter his or her fatigue or pain.

His good looks and that rather flawless head of dark hair didn't hurt him as a TV personality among the casual watchers (even though some labeled his court performance and demeanor robotic). As an icon in today's saturation of big-time athletics on the nation's screens, Sampras is not going to rank with Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or even Roger Clemens. Tennis does not ignite the multitudes.

But if you want to examine the reasons Pete Sampras's name is probably going to last through the ages when they call the roll of athletes of the era, you'll get them from a man who competed against him, once beating him 6-0, 6-1 when both were juniors.

David Wheaton of Minneapolis once reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and the quarters in the US Open.

He never won a match from Sampras on the tour.

"He paid the price for that commitment," Wheaton says, "by being a kind of loner on the tour. Among people he knew well and away from the court he's actually pretty talkative, and even a little sarcastic in an inoffensive way. But his social life didn't extend to tennis. I'll tell you one of the things that made him so great. Most tennis players, even a lot of the great ones, get tensed up in pressure situations. They have to deal with their nerves. I've never seen that in Pete. Somehow he had found the secret, or worked at it, to relaxing his body even in the biggest matches. In those big points that determine a set or a match or a major championship, he was loose and under control. I think one of the reasons for that was his confidence in who he was and what he could do. His tennis and his character had been tested under fire. He'd met those tests and he knew what was inside of him."

It was a quality that intimidated many of his opponents, and in his final months as a big-time competitor that intimidation pretty much dissolved.

It didn't do any harm to that intimidation element of his game, of course, to serve the way Sampras served.

"You know, that's right," Wheaton said. "There have been guys who served harder, or served harder on certain courts, but nobody who served with the consistent firepower that Pete turned loose on that first serve."

Once in a while a TV watcher would see the routine finish of a Sampras victory, bereft of theatrics or a headlong plunge into the net, and wonder if the guy bled or laughed or cried.

Nobody, Wheaton will remind you, who saw Pete Sampras race into the stands at the end of his match with Agassi last year to embrace his pregnant wife, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, has any doubt of it.

A career with the most major wins

• Youngest man to win the US Open: 1990, at barely 19 years old.

• Serve speed: 130 miles per hour.

• No. 1 in the world: First achieved ranking in 1993 after a four-set victory over Jim Courier in men's Wimbledon final.

• Most victories in Grand Slam event: 14, ending with last year's US Open.

• Missing moment: Never won the French Open, the only Grand Slam that eluded him.

Self-assessment:

I'm sure as the months and years go by, I'll look back at these two weeks as the most difficult, the most satisfying, and the fact that my parents were here - it's just a great script. It was getting dark, the flashes, the roar of the crowd. It's a moment I'll never forget.'

- July 2000, to the Washington Post

The last couple of years were tough. It took a lot out of me, emotionally, to not play well and to have to talk about it all the time.'

- December 2002, to the Los Angeles Times

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