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When it comes to worldwide reach and scope, few sports hold a candle to tennis. To celebrate all that makes tennis so rich and deep, Tennis Channel kicks off "TenniScope." Authored by Tennis Channel writer Joel Drucker, these short pieces describe many of the fabulous moments and places, people and products that have added sparkle and passion to our sport.

TenniScope Book review:
A Champion's Mind: Lessons From A Life in Tennis
By Pete Sampras with Peter Bodo
Crown Publishing
304 pages; $24.95

Click here to purchase at amazon.com

Reviewed by Joel Drucker

There was always a striking contrast between Pete Sampras' body on and off the court. Away from the court, his slight hunch and no-nonsense manner made him look far from imposing. Sampras off the court lacked the burning awkwardness of John McEnroe, the physical mass of Jim Courier, the attentive charisma of Andre Agassi. He was just a guy named Pete who in his jeans resembled a friendly undergrad about to take an econ mid-term.

Once he walked on the court, though Sampras seemed to expand, the humble Greek accordion stretching to its full height, body and mind fully-engaged, at once tranquil and intense, alert but never panicked. "To come out there and give guys the gas from the start was a great feeling," he once told me, speaking about the way he'd often kick things off with a 126 mph ace down the center. Since aces are infrequent among recreational players, it's hard to convey the helplessness so many Sampras opponents felt at not even being able to touch the ball on a big point.

But there was far to more Sampras than big serves, far more to his game and persona than seemed the case when he was dominating tennis for much of the '90s. A great deal of Sampras comes to life in his engaging, recently-published autobiography, A Champion's Mind: Lessons From A Life in Tennis. Authored with veteran Tennis Magazine writer Peter Bodo, Sampras has worked hard to cover his journey from a seven-year-old nicknamed "The Grin" to the battle-tested warrior who ended his career in a rare storybook manner: closing out the 2002 U.S. Open final versus his most formidable rival, Andre Agassi.

With nary a drop of pretense, the story unfolds - and like the tales of all pro tennis players, it's extraordinary to see how an individual dips into this sport bit by bit and soon becomes heavily engrossed in it.

Contrary to what many perceive, the truly great tennis players do not usually come from wealthy backgrounds. Jack Kramer's father worked for the railroad. Billie Jean King's dad was a fireman. Pete Sampras' father ran a sandwich shop in the Washington, D.C. area. Sam Sampras soon relocated his four children west, the six Samprases trekking across the country in a tiny two-door Ford Pinto.

As fate had it, the Sampras family's new home was not just in tennis-friendly Southern California, but in one of the sport's red hot centers, the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Such venues as the nearby Jack Kramer Club - where notable coaches Vic Braden and Robert Lansdorp taught throughout most of the '60s and '70s - had been the launching ground for dozens of superb players, including Tracy Austin and Eliot Teltscher.

Virtually immediately, Sampras was spotted by a tennis zealot, a local doctor named Pete Fischer. It was Fischer who told Sampras' father the boy could be a champion, spotting what Sampras repeatedly refers to as "The Gift." It was Fischer who arranged for Sampras to receive coaching from a wide range of experts. And it was Fischer who recommended Sampras switch from a two-handed to a one-backhand in his teens, a move that in the short term led to many losses but in the long term aided Sampras' run to a record 14 Grand Slam titles.

As Sampras writes, "I learned to deal with losing without having my spirit or confidence broken, which would help me immensely over time... fear of losing is a terrible thing."

In a way, Sampras' time with Fischer sets the tone for the book. It's a tale of ambition, of personal drive, but also of tough decisions and, in the service of a vision, making choices that even Sampras admits isolated him from other activities and people. In the obvious way, this is a tale of success and stirring matches versus the likes of Agassi, Courier, Boris Becker, Patrick Rafter and lifelong rival Michael Chang. Like most sports books, the tale is told chronologically, detailing much from Sampras' entire pro career.

But the bigger surprise for those who haven't been around Sampras much is his capacity for introspection. The book is a written acknowledgment that victory comes with a price tag. With understated candor, he describes why he chose to stop working with Fischer and the pain he felt when a new friend, Vitas Gerulaitis, died.

Even more powerful is how writes about the illness of his coach, Tim Gullikson, particularly as he neared death: "He struggled for words, remembering less and less. Everything that made Tim who he was just slowly and inexorably drained away. I remember getting on the plane and looking back, out the window, and seeing him there, all by himself. I was alone too. Slowly, tears started to roll down my cheeks."

In many ways, the life of a tennis player is enjoyable beyond belief - lots of money, others taking care of the messy stuff, time in the sun. But as this book tells, there's more to it too. Tennis is lonely, a sport that rapidly culls out those who can't take the responsibility of one match after another. As Sampras experienced first-hand, ambition is no easy companion. Sampras' liquid-smooth game may have given off the sense that everything rolled off him like water off a duck, but beneath that calm has always been a man of exceptional drive and, yes, genuine emotion. This book conveys that spirit quite well.

Joel Drucker covered Pete Sampras' entire career, writing stories about him for such magazines as USTA Magazine, Los Angeles, Northwest Traveler and Tennis Match, as well as co-producing Tennis Channel's special one-hour version of "Center Court with Chris Meyers" on Sampras.
Read all the Tenniscope columns:

Happy Birthday, Ken Rosewall | Davis Cup: How it all started | Mixing It Up In Mixed Doubles | Aussies Set The Tennis Code | The Royal Reign of Margaret Court | Reflections on Michael Chang | Let's Take it Inside | Warm-Up Suits | Death of a Player | A Tale of Two Backhands | Court Management | Movie Review | Racquet Racket | Sampras: Book Review

Comments

  1. Katharine (7/3/2008 11:53:06 PM) 

    I read Pete's book cover to cover and had to keep picking it up until it was over. I loved the candor and it felt up close and personal. He reveals so much about the agonies to get to such heights and then the struggle to stay there. The really tough part is knowing when to quit. He left with grace. The book for me was an Ace. Maybe a hundred Aces.

  2. metro (6/19/2008 12:57:46 PM) 

    read this weekend, perfect Father's Day gift. Some nice insight into the Pro Tennis world, and a few good hitting tips to boot. Nice Appendix by Pete of his best opponents. All accompanied by Tennis Channel replays of Pete's great Wimbledom matches on TV with that serve cranking aces all over the court. Perfect!



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