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Thank You, Pete

by Steve Flink

Pete Sampras shed some tears during his speech at the 2007 Hall of Fame Induction.
Across my tennis lifetime, over a span of more than four decades, through a good many compelling years, I have seen all of the game's towering figures. I watched the mighty Pancho Gonzalez in his twilight, still performing prodigiously in his early forties. I witnessed Rod Laver as he recorded a second Grand Slam in 1969. I got the chance to observe Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe at the height of their powers. And, of course, I have been around while Roger Federer has majestically dominated tennis these last four years, rising swiftly among the elite players on the all time ladder of the sport.

But the greatest player I have ever seen and the man I have most admired has been Pete Sampras. No one has worn the robe of champion with more class. From my point of view, Sampras was a singularly important individual, a fellow who played hard but always fair, a fundamentally decent man who refused to step over that thin but unmistakable line separating confidence from arrogance. Sampras was and remains entirely himself, comfortable in his own skin, authentic through and through. During his golden career, he went about his business steadfastly and earnestly, disdaining artificiality, winning with grace.

And so it was with much more than casual interest that I attended the induction ceremony at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island last weekend. Taking their places in the class of 2007 were Sweden's Sven Davidson (the 1957 French Champion); Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, the indefatigable Spaniard who claimed four major singles championships including three titles at Roland Garros; and esteemed photographer Russ Adams, who was celebrated for his extraordinary contributions to the sport. But, while that trio all deserved their honors, it was Sampras who was the central figure in Newport. His induction overshadowed everything and everyone else; it was as simple as that.

After Adams, Davidson and Sanchez-Vicario had spoken and been showered with applause, it was time for Sampras to step up to the microphone and try to convey what the game and his role in it has meant to him. For the dignified and understated 35-year-old, finding the right words and releasing them comfortably was a demanding task. He had, after all, done most of his talking through the years with his racquet, eloquently expressing himself with his artistry on the court. In that setting, on his own terms, Sampras was masterful. The arena was his forum for communication, his platform for unabashedly demonstrating who he was and what he represented.

To be sure, those of us who report on tennis for a living know how well Sampras articulates his thoughts. Whenever questions are thrown at him in one on one interviews or press conferences, Sampras responds thoughtfully and expansively, stating his views with growing assurance. Some of the most enjoyable and enlightening interviews I have conducted in my time as a journalist have been with Pete Sampras; he has always been direct, diplomatic, and candid in my dealings with him.

And yet, interviews are one thing; public speaking is another story altogether. At his core, Sampras is essentially shy and introverted, low key and understated. In Newport last weekend, he faced a monumental challenge: attempting to crystallize a 15 year career as arguably the best player ever in a matter of minutes. Sampras gave a poignant speech, sharing his success with his mother, father and entire family, saluting his wife Bridgette for bolstering him enormously during his late career slump, paying tribute to coaches Tim Gullikson and Paul Annacone.

Over and over again, he was forced to stop speaking, fighting a losing battle to hold back the tears. There were numerous long pauses while he tried to keep his far reaching emotions beneath the surface in the same compartment where he had contained so many deep feelings during emotional moments in his career. On this occasion, much like the celebration in Arthur Ashe Stadium four years ago at the U.S. Open at his retirement ceremony, Sampras was wrapped up in so many layers of emotion that he could not prevent himself from crying.

The sympathetic audience understood his plight. And as Sampras spoke, surely the fans were recollecting the man and the scope of his achievements: the record 14 major championships which included a modern record of 7 Wimbledon singles titles and five U.S. Open championships, six years in a row as the No. 1 ranked player in the world, winning at least one major for eight consecutive years (1993-2000, a men's mark only Borg has equaled), capturing his first and last Grand Slam championships no fewer than 12 years apart, losing only four times in 18 major finals. And doing it all with admirable dignity and style.

As he accepted his great honor at the Hall of Fame, I thought of how he changed without ever surrendering his integrity. After he first made it to No. 1 in the world in 1993, we spoke for some time about his temperament and mindset, about how perhaps the public misunderstood him. Sampras said then, "The knock on me the last couple of years is if I am not playing well and I have got my head down, they think I am tanking whereas when I am hitting great shots and playing unbelievable tennis, I can look like a genius. I remember Arthur Ashe comparing himself to Jimmy Connors, saying he wished he had the intensity and willpower that Connors had, but he just did not. And Ashe said he was not going to change then and he probably never would change in that respect.

"I see myself much more like Arthur than Connors. I wish I had the killer instinct and obviously I want to win, but Connors really wanted to win. He hated to lose. I hate to lose, too, and wish I was a little more like Connors, but I am not, and I am not going to try to be."

In retrospect, that is a fascinating comment because Sampras, without compromising even a trace of his hard earned reputation as a sportsman, would eventually be reminiscent of Connors without letting go of the Ashe influence. Sampras became in his quiet way every bit as tough and resilient a competitor as Connors ever was, without resorting to vulgarity and crudeness as was often the case with Connors. His mental toughness was as big a weapon as his exquisite serve, which I believe is the best delivery the game has ever seen.

But Sampras, like Ashe, kept a wide range of emotions bottled up inside of him. In 1998, when he was in the latter stages of a long quest to secure the No. 1 world ranking for a record sixth straight year, Sampras played Jason Stoltenberg in Stockholm. He was playing his sixth consecutive indoor event, an endeavor which left him thoroughly debilitated. After losing an opening set tie-break, Sampras stepped totally out of character. As he told me, "I threw my racket down on the court and broke it in about a million pieces. I was so stressed out from the whole race for No. 1 and I wasn't eating or sleeping well. I was on the edge. I had never done anything like that in my career before and would not do it after, but I just snapped for a moment. It felt pretty good. I will never forget the looks on the faces of those fans."

The fans in Newport last weekend saw Pete Sampras speaking straight from the heart. Reading between the lines, it seemed to me that he was letting it fully sink in--- as he never quite had before--- that he would never re-inhabit the world he once ruled so proudly. The world of major tournament tennis was his kingdom, but those heady days are behind him. So who could blame Sampras for lamenting the loss of something that meant so much to him for such an important chunk of his life?

The end of his speech sent chills through me and many others. "I stand before you," he said, "both humbled and grateful... I'm a tennis player, nothing less and nothing more. It's more than enough for me. It always has been."

It was more than enough for those of us who valued his career so highly. So this piece is for Pete Sampras, and for his contribution to my life, which has been larger than he ever could have known.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the TennisChannel.com

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