Born to Win
Interview: Peter Bodo
|For a guy whose gastronomic preferences run to cheeseburgers and French fries, Pete Sampras has good taste in houses. His spacious ranch-style home, nestled on a steep hillside among vines and shrubbery in Los Angeles' exclusive Benedict Canyons, is much like its owner --- simple, straightforward, and a model of understated elegance.
It's a masculine residence, to be sure, full of rich earth tones, polished hardwood floors, exposed beams, a fireplace, and the kind of heavy but comfortable furniture you might find in an exclusive men's club. The furnishings are spare and sober, with only a few large potted plants --- one of white orchids --- to warm things up.
In the living room, a white bookcase runs the length of one wall. On one shelf are six Wimbledon Champion's Cups (he would win his seventh in July), each the size of a McDonald's Supersize Coke. Another shelf holds four replicas of the U.S. Open men's singles trophy, while the five trophies for Smapras' ATP World Championships occupy yet another shelf.
Sampras, dressed in a white T-shirt and baggy red shorts, comes bounding down the stairs. He greets me with a handshake and that trademark, elastic smile. Sampras is 29 years old now, but while his curly hair has begun to thin in spots, he retains that boyish face, and still looks younger, and significantly smaller, in person than he does on TV.
We head for the patio, near an in-ground pool that hasn't been cleaned. Somebody is working on it, but Sampras doesn't mind the distraction. We sit on the avocado-colored cushions of his outdoor furniture and roll tape.
Never comfortable expressing his deepest feelings, Sampras becomes self-conscious when discussing his love life, deflecting questions with playful banter. He occasionally takes a swig cracks his knuckles, calling attention to his hands. They're alabaster in color, with long, fine fingers.
When wrapped around the handle of a tennis racquet, those hands have served Sampras much more than well. It's 10 years ago this month that he became the youngest man ever to win the U.S. Open. During the ensuing decade, he has staked a claim to being the greatest tennis player of all time. And that's what he prefers to talk about today: the good times and the hard times of a life in tennis.
Q: If you look around this place and then think back to yourself as a happy-go-lucky, grinning 15-year-old, did you ever think you'd wind up having all this?
PS: Yeah, I assumed I would be successful, because everybody predicted it for me --- although it would have been hard to forecast this degree of success. Sometimes, if I happen to glance at the trophies on the bookshelf, I'm a bit overwhelmed. But this level of comfort was never a priority, because I don't need a lot to be happy. I've always led a pretty simple life, with few extravagances. The money in tennis never drove me. When I turned pro, I often shared a room on the road with my brother, Gus, to keep expenses down. [Gus, now 32, is the assistant tournament director of the Scottsdale, Ariz., ATP tournament.]
Now I can have all the luxuries and conveniences, like a jet and nice cars. I know my family will always be secure. That means a lot to me. What's a little strange is that when I first turned pro, I wasn't sure I wanted to experience this level of success in tennis. But a few things happened at the start of my career to make me realize that I did want it.
Q: I assume you're referring to the confusion you experienced after unexpectedly winning the U.S. Open in 1990. Did fame really whack you that hard?
PS: Oh yeah. When I won the Open in '90, I wasn't ready. Not as a person, and not as a tennis player, I just happened to have two great weeks. That's the only way to explain it. Otherwise, I was a really green, insecure kid.
The morning after I won, I did all these talk shows. And they made me feel intensely uncomfortable. It's tough for a kid just turning 19 to have all that attention. I was a shy, immature kid, and that came across. Suddenly, everybody always expected me to be in a good mood. But all I really wanted, like most 19-year-olds was to find a comfort zone as a person, to fit in. And fame wasn't my idea of it. I got overwhelmed trying to figure out what people wanted from me. I also saw that what I'd done would affect the rest of my life, and that was scary.
On top of that, I knew my game couldn't support what I'd created. After winning that Open, I began to feel like a marked man on the court, and I really wasn't a good enough player yet to ward it off. I just had a two-week fairy tale, and then this price to pay --- the responsibility of backing it up. It took me a couple of years, pretty much until I won the Open for the second time in 1993, to figure it out mentally, and to develop a good enough game to defend my position.
Here I am complaining about winning the U.S. Open. But if I had to do it all over again, I would rather have won it later.
Q: After you lost in the Open quarterfinals the next year, you held a memorable press conference in which you said you felt relieved that the pressure was off. Consequently, a number of players, including Jim Courier and Jimmy Connors, raked you over the coals for it. Did you mean what you said, or did it just come out wrong?
PS: I remember that episode well. It was one of the two or three real media low points for me. But you know, I just went in that interview room and said what I felt.
It was what I was feeling at that time, although it came out sounding like I was happy to lose. And it reflected that while I had a lot of talent for the game, I had no real idea back then of what it took mentally to be a consistent, Grand Slam-level winner.
Q: Your comments raise an interesting question: Are champions born or made?
PS: In my case, I'd probably have to say born. At the most basic level, this game comes easily to me. I was born with the right genes, I guess. But despite being given that talent, I did have to make myself a certain way, mentally. And in that sense, I'm made.
It's a little deceptive, maybe, because I'm not one to go to sports psychologists, to have complicated charts breaking down my game, or to leave no stone unturned in looking for an advantage. But I would never underestimate the mental aspects of playing this game. I just operate a little more naturally.
Q: You've often expressed an aversion to overanalyzing things. Is that really your temperament, or is it a means of self-protection you've developed against a prying world?
PS: It's me, more than the situation I'm in. It's the way I look at my life, and my tennis: Keep things as simple as possible, and shy away from analyzing every little thing. Don't over complicate things.
I know people sometimes have trouble understanding my tennis, and they try to figure out why I'm successful. But for me, it's always been very simple and natural. The game is something I take for granted. When I'm playing well, it's easy. And that's how I've always approached it. I'm the kind of person whose first reaction in lots of situations where others might get stressed out or start agonizing is to think, Hey, it's no big deal, why make it out to be? And that's my way in my everyday life, too.
Q: Boris Becker has said that one of the assets that makes you such a great champion is your unique talent for keeping the world at arm's length, so that it doesn't affect your performance. Is that an accurate insight?
PS: That's very accurate. Absolutely. I'm pretty good at separating my tennis from all the other stuff. I don't let a lot of people into my life. I don't even have a lot of acquaintances.
I'm driven. And that gets lost a little in the translation, because I appear to be so casual. But I know what I want, and I'll do anything I need to do to achieve it. Tennis-wise, that means I don't care about headlines, I don't care about how I'm seen. My priority is to win. I want to hold up that cup at the end. And over the years, I figured out what it takes to do that. It works for me, and that's all I know.
Q: Does that attitude, that distance you maintain, rub off in your personal life? Do those close to you find you hard to read?
PS: I've heard that from a few different people, including Paul [Annacone, Sampras' coach]. He told me once that I was an enigma, that when I walk into the locker room, the other guys look at me like they can't figure me out. It certainly isn't something I do on purpose --- like some image or aura I'm trying to create.
But it's different with my loved ones, my family. Nobody close to me has ever complained about me being remote. It does take a while for me to get to know someone, and at first I may not show what I'm thinking or feeling. But when I trust someone, I let the shield down. I open up.
Q: Did the extraordinary generation of players of which you were a part --- Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang --- play a part in your developing into a champion for the ages?
PS: I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't have those guys to push me. If you look at the chronology, you'll see that I was the last to peak. Michael won the French in 1989. I won the U.S. Open in 1990, but then I disappeared while Jim went on a tear, winning the 1991 and 1992 French Opens and going to No. 1 in the world. Andre was right in the thick of it, too.
I wasn't jealous, but it did bother me a little to see them jump ahead. It made me wonder if I'd ever get to that point. That helped my motivation at a time when I was struggling with what I wanted out of the game. When I practised with Jim, it opened my eyes. There were moments when I thought, Yeah, I'm capable of beating this guy. Why shouldn't I accomplish the same things?
Everyone seemed to set the bar higher for everyone else, all the time. We fed off that. We were all trying to make our marks, we were all insecure in some ways, and now I think we can all appreciate each others' accomplishments because we've been there ourselves. We know what it takes, and that creates a special bond among us.
Q: Does it amuse you that you're so often characterized as a laid-back guy, just surfing his talent to the top?
PS: Yeah, a little bit. There's a competitiveness and an ability to focus that doesn't come across because it's well hidden, and that isn't what sports is about these days. I'm more of a Bjorn Borg, or a Larry Bird, than a John McEnroe. It probably has to do with how I was raised and my personality. I'm an internalizer, not a screamer.
I once played a round of golf with David Duval. As nice as he was to everyone else, I could see he wanted to play well. Before we played, he kind of went off by himself, to focus. I noted that. I thought, Yeah, that's what I'm like, too.
Q: Your parents, Sam and Georgia, are legendary for staying clear of the limelight. Can you characterize them, and how they influenced you?
PS: I found tennis for myself. My parents just supported my interest in the game. It was a financial strain. For a while, my dad worked two jobs. [Sam Sampras, now retired, was both an engineer and a restaurant owner.] At first, he tried coaching me by reading books about the game. But that didn't last too long, and we joke about it now. Dad turned my development over to my first coach, Pete Fischer. But he was right there, at a lot of my lessons, and driving me to matches and tournaments. So he was involved, but not on-court. He was smart enough to know what he didn't know.
My dad is kind of a character. Like me, he keeps people at arm's length, but once he trusts and likes you, he'll be loyal to the end. That could take a while, though. It took my younger sister Marion's husband, Phil Hodges, a year to break through Dad's shield. He also doesn't come off as the warmest of people on the phone. When my childhood friends would call, they were always a little intimidated.
But Dad's also nervous. Neither he or my mum could stand to watch the 1990 U.S. Open final on TV, so they wandered around a mall near our house in Palos Verdes [Calif.]. They found out I won when they passed by an electronics store and saw a TV tuned to a shot of me holding up the trophy.
When I was a junior, I played up in age divisions. At 12, I'd be playing these 16-year-olds. Often, right in the middle of some tough match, I'd look up at my dad. So what does he do? He waves goodbye and goes for a walk! And then I feel like I'm out there alone. I'm convinced that those experiences shaped who I am today. They made me tough and independent. That's why you rarely see me looking at the players' box during a match.
My mum is the rock of the family. She used to feed me tennis balls because I was so crazy about the game, but she didn't have many interests of her own beyond her kids. She started out dirt-poor, moving to this country from Greece at the age 25 without speaking a word of English, with a family that included six sisters and two brothers. Those first years, she sometimes slept on a cement floor. She became a beautician, and met my father when a buddy of his encouraged him to check her out at the place where she cut hair.
Mum is the caretaker of the family. She has no education, but a lot of common sense, and she reads people well. Her talent is her heart, yet in her own quiet way, she's very strong.
Q: Your parents made a rare public appearance at the recent Davis Cup tie played against the Czech Republic in Los Angeles. What prompted them to come and watch you that time?
PS: It's all part of a bigger picture that includes my moving back to Los Angeles.
I went off to live in Orland [Fla.] in my early 20s so I could focus on my tennis. The plan worked, but tennis began to consume me and I ended up enjoying the game less because of it. The time I spent with my family was mostly on the phone. Now that I'm back in Los Angeles, I feel I'm back where my roots are. I see my sister, Stella, three, four times a week. [Stella, 31, is the UCLA women's tennis coach.] I drop by my parent's house once a week or so. It's been more than good for my life to be back here. It's been great.
My dad sat through all the matches at the Davis Cup -- a first. And when he came out on the court after I won the fifth, decisive match [against Slava Dosedel] and gave me a hug, it felt good. Really good.
I think they always wanted to be there with me, but they didn't want me worrying about them. And I would have. I'm kind of a worrywart: Did they get their tickets OK? Is the hotel any good? That kind of stuff. The funny thing was that I actually had to make the point that I really wanted them there. I had to come out and tell them how much it meant to me for them to come.
Q: What are your fondest childhood memories?
PS: No matter how long I think about it, it always comes back to tennis. Playing and winning. Getting out of school and going on court, grinding away. And seeing improvements in my game.
I didn't have any friends in high school, except at the Jack Kramer Club where I practiced. I didn't hang around with anybody, didn't play any other sports, didn't socialize. It got so bad that during lunch period, I'd just go home. To the other kids I was just "the tennis guy." But I was OK with that -- I had a passion for the game.
I'm not the sentimental type. I didn't keep old teddy bears or my first tennis racket. In fact, I've got very little of my own memorabilia. It seems like every year I won Wimbledon, Ian Hamilton [a former executive at Nike, a big Sampras endorser] would come into the locker room and ask for my shoes, autographed. I'd just laugh and give them to him.
Q: Do you feel you missed out on a normal adolescence?
PS: Not really, although sometimes I think it would have been nice to go to college. I talk about that a lot with Stella, who loved the independence, the parties, the fun. If I start to think I missed anything, I just have to remind myself that my job is to play sports. It's every kid's dream come true. I don't think it gets any better than this.
Q: Do you believe in God? If so, how do you express your faith?
PS: I absolutely believe. I used to go to Sunday school and Greek Orthodox Sunday services with my family. That's how my parents raised me and that's how I'll raise my kids someday.
Q: For the time being, you've remained single --- and show a marked preference for dating actresses. Is there a hidden, flamboyant side to you?
PS: I'm not real comfortable talking about this stuff. But if you're suggesting I live this racy bachelor lifestyle, that's not really accurate. I never went out to pick up girls. I never enjoyed it, and I'm much too protective about everything in my life to live loosely. I have gone to the occasionally club, had a few drinks, a little fun -- but I knew I'd never meet my wife at a nightclub.
Marriage isn't really workable with the way I've approached my career. But I definitely want to be married and have kids. That day is getting closer. [Shortly after this interview was completed, Sampras got engaged to Bridgette Wilson, an actress who has appeared in Love Stinks, Billy Madison, and The Real Blond and recently completed filming The Wedding Planner with Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lopez. No date has been set for the wedding.]
Q: Your extraordinary record at Wimbledon is deceiving. You didn't like grass early on and didn't get past the second round at Wimbledon until 1992, the fourth year you played there. How did you turn it around?
PS: For years, I felt that grass was unfair. My first few trips there, I was like, Ugh! This surface stinks. I'm holding serve easily, but I'm going to lose, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. My attitude was very negative, even though Pete Fischer always insisted that I would do well there.
When Tim Gullikson took over as my coach, he felt the same way as Fischer. In 1992, we worked really hard on the two things you most need to win on grass: a good second serve and sharp service returns. That year, I was practicing at Wimbledon one day on a court next to John McEnroe. He heard me making negative comments about the grass. He challenged me, saying I had a great game for grass but a crappy attitude. It was almost like a throwaway remark, but it must have sunk in, because here I am relating it eight years, and six titles, later. I didn't get over the hump until I changed my negative attitude.
Q: Is it fair to say that your relationship with McEnroe, currently your Davis Cup captain, has been a colorful one?
PS: John and I are about as different as two people can get personality-wise, and that explains a lot.
We've had our share of miscommunications at times, including Davis Cup. [Last February, McEnroe claimed Sampras, who pulled out of a first-round tie against Zimbabwe with a hip-flexor injury, never wanted to make the trip to Harare in the first place.] John likes to stir things up. He thrives on controversy and emotional stuff in a way that I don't, and once you understand that, it's easier to deal with him. The big plus is that he's been there at that high level, and he knows how to handle players like Andre and me on court.
Q: In recent years, McEnroe has suggested you ought to be more colorful, show more emotion. Do you resent that?
PS: To have someone tell me that I ought to act differently from how I am, or to make an effort to be exciting, is just the biggest load of garbage. We're all different. It's baffling that anyone would presume to tell someone else to depart from their natural self. I have no apologies to make for the way I play or what I project. I feel no shame in knowing kids are watching me play and maybe even taking their cues from it. And I think that my own quiet way has taken me to places I wouldn't have dreamed of ever reaching.
Q: What are some of your personal career highlights?
PS: Right off, my first U.S. Open title. The 1999 Wimbledon final against Andre is right up there too. It was my best-ever display of playing at a high level, against a top-quality opponent, at a very big moment. I had it all that day. The 1995 Davis Cup final against Russia in Moscow is another one, because I won three matches --- two singles and the doubles --- against a tough team on clay, my least favorite surface.
Two others stand out, but not because of the the title matches: the 1997 Australian Open and the 1996 U.S. Open. In Melbourne, I had a pretty easy final against Carlos Moya, but I almost lost to Dominik Hrbaty in five very tough sets in 140-degree heat in the fourth round. And at the '96 U.S. Open I had that epic quarterfinal match with Alex Corretja. [Sampras won that 4-hour, 9-minute marathon after becoming ill on court during the fifth-set tiebreaker; he went on to beat Chang in the final.]
Q: It seems that the "F" word in your career has been "fitness." Are your critics justified in claiming you aren't always in the best of shape?
PS: After that Corretja match, Tom Tebbutt, a reporter for the Globe and Mail, wrote a story claiming I suffered from thalassemia, a low-iron blood condition that afflicts some people of Mediterranean descent. He was spot on. I have it. It sometimes makes me feel lethargic and a little out of it --- that hang-dog look is partly because of the condition --- especially in any very hot weather. I've been doing about all you can to offset it, which is taking iron pills. Other than trying to build up your iron level, there isn't much else you can do. I've never admitted it until now because I didn't want my opponents to have that confidence of knowing I was playing with a deficit.
I've also had stomach problems, partly because of the way I internalize things and create stress. I had a small ulcer for about two years before that Corretja match without even knowing it. Playing matches in brutal heat didn't help either of those two conditions.
Apart from that, I don't have the personality to work as hard as, say a Jim Courier. Or the body. Leaner guys are different. I'm built more along the lines of a Stefan Edberg, who wasn't particularly known for his fitness, either.
But the issue is always in my mind, and I've tried to do all I need both on the court and in the gym to maximize my game. My current goal is to keep my fitness level high during off weeks and breaks from the tour.
Q: That Corretja match is emblematic of how hard you've had to work for your success at Flushing Meadows. Is it fair to say that the U.S. Open has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride for you?
PS: Well, I can't complain --- I've won my own national title four times. But it has been an interesting ride and a less smooth one than I've had at Wimbledon. Maybe it has to do with the U.S. Open being the last Grand Slam event of a very long year. That may explain things like the herniated disk I had last year, right before the event started.
I always put myself through more torture than necessary at the Open. I kind of raised the bar with my record from 1993-95 [Sampras won two Slams in each of those years], and I remember in '96 people had these huge expectations. I hadn't won a Slam that year going into the Open, and I heard people whispering that I was slipping. I wanted that title. I wanted it so much, it turned my stomach upside down. That's how the Corretja thing came about.
Afterwards, I realized that tennis was consuming my life. I wanted so badly to win, and I was so focused that I lost touch with reality. It took me wandering around the court, throwing up, to realize that. Later, I talked about it with Paul. He said I had to be careful, because I 'm too hard on myself. But that also helps explain why I've done so well.
Q: Do you feel like you've paid a huge price for your success?
PS: Not at all. The recognition, having to live a life in the public eye, is probably the toughest part. But even that isn't too bad. It's flattering on one level, even though I do wish I could shut it off.
How can I complain about my lot? If I do, I probably should be slapped around rather than listened to.
Q: Have you ever felt a desire for more sympathy than you've gotten?
PS: On two occasions. One was that Davis Cup win over Russia. I'm really proud of that and feel it went unrecognized in the U.S. The other time was in 1998, when I set the record by finishing No. 1 for the sixth straight year. I think that's a record unlikely to be broken, given the growing depth in the game. I wasn't calling any press conferences to complain that there wasn't a single American in Europe covering that story. But when the European press kept asking me about it, I told them how I felt.
All right, it's not like breaking the major league baseball single-season home-run record. And if people hear me complain about not getting enough credit, they're going to nail me. But I'm a human being. I have emotions. If I go through something that exacts such a heavy toll and feel it isn't recognized, it gets to me. I think it would get to anybody.
Q: What was the toll of that drive?
PS: It was an awful period. I decided I really wanted the record, even if it meant staying in Europe and playing tennis for almost two months in a row, which is basically what I did. Unlike, say, winning Wimbledon, this record was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
I don't confide in a lot of people, but after I lost to Richard Krajicek in Stuttgart at the end of October that year, I was still No. 2, with no guarantee of how things would turn out. At my next tournament, the Paris Indoors, I got Paul in my room and told him, "Hey, I'm really struggling with this. I can't stop thinking about this record issue. I'm putting so much into it. How am I going to deal with it if I don't get it?" It put me in a situation I don't experience a lot -- the fear of losing. And that's a big thing.
But I couldn't make this obsession go away. Even when people ask me now if it was worth all the effort, the best I can say is "Yeah --- sort of." Because the effort took so much out of me. My hair was falling out in clumps. I couldn't eat and I couldn't sleep. After seven straight weeks fighting to get the job done, I came home as mentally and physically tired as I've ever been in my life. And I ended up thinking, This isn't war. I'm not fighting for my life here.
People who know me understand that I torture myself sometimes just to win matches. I would almost say that in some ways, my life has been unbalanced. But I'm learning. Moving back to L.A. and spending more time with my family and girlfriend have helped me change a little. I realize it's OK to lose a tennis match. I'm not worried about that taking the edge off my competitiveness, because I really want to keep playing. If I slip up and never win a big tournament again, that's just the way it goes. The one thing I won't do is get into another situation like that quest for the record.
Q: Has it been gratifying to see Andre Agassi reemerge in the autumn of his career as a force in the game and a rival to you?
PS: Undoubtedly. I've grown much more aware of what Andre has meant to my career during the last few years, since we've played each other a little more. Before, I didn't really see my relationship or rivalry with Andre as anything special. But now I do. I think we both realize now what's going on: We bring a lot to each other's table. Our games match up great; whichever of us is playing better can really shine. And our rivalry is good for us and it's good for the game.
Ironically, it hurt my career in some ways not to have Andre around all the time. The Celtics had the Lakers, Ali had Frazier, and Borg had McEnroe. I had Andre -- at times. Our rivalry is as good as it will ever get for either of us. It helps us build our legacies. We both know that. We don't even have to talk about it.
Q: You've shown great loyalty to your three coaches over the years: Fischer, Gullikson and Annacone. Two of those coaches experienced real tragedy. How did the fall of Pete Fischer [he was jailed in 1998 for child molestation] and Tim Gullikson's death from brain cancer in 1996 affect you?
PS: I had long been separated from Pete's life by the time he went to jail. I didn't follow his case very closely, but I knew that no matter what he did, I couldn't abandon him as a friend. He was a big part of my life. He had a lot to do with what I am today, and you don't just desert someone like that. It's hard to see where he can ever go from here, when he gets out [of prison] in about a year. And that's sad.
Tim's situation really hit home, harder. He was with me when he got ill, and he died pretty much right before my eyes. I don't take what Pete's been through lightly, but I can't imagine anything worse than what Tim had to endure. It was hard playing through it all, especially because I had to deal with it in a public way when it was such a deeply sad, private experience. He certainly put the gift of life into a new perspective for me.
Q: What's the main thing you've learned about people throughout all these years?
PS: That everyone isn't necessarily honest, and that I'm only interested in people who are straight-shooters. My attitude is basically that I'm always going to be honest, and I expect people to be honest in return.
Q: How much of a future do you still have in tennis?
PS: I can't put a number on that in terms of years, but I'll keep going as long as the desire lasts. The scary thing for me is that with the way I play and the way I feel, I believe that I'll have a chance to win at Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open, even at age 35.
I see myself being around for a while. Yevgeny [Kafelnikov] is convinced that I'm the main obstacle in his path to winning Grand Slams and being No. 1 for an extended period. Whenever I see him in a locker room, he asks me, "So Pete, how much longer are you going to play?" My stock answer is, "Gee, I don't know; how much longer do you think you'll play?"