The infuriating brilliance of Pete Sampras

The infuriating brilliance of Pete Sampras

By Kanishkaa Balachandran/The Hindu

What drives one’s love for a sport? Part of the answer lies in the question itself. Love — for the sport’s occasionally idiosyncratic rules that make it all the more engaging; love — for its players, in particular the flawed geniuses who offer that touch of unpredictability. But what about hatred? To put it more politely, can the emotion of dislike fuel that passion?

I discovered that my liking for tennis (always second to cricket, mind you) through the ’90s was driven largely by the dislike for the giant of that era, the grass-court technician who would go on to be king — Pete Sampras. Sampras was the true “wall”, whose job it was to crush the dreams of lesser-able players and simply pocket titles and Grand Slams for fun.

But before I could truly embrace the American, I had already warmed to a couple of other players who for the best part of their careers were outsmarted by Sampras — Goran Ivanišević and Andre Agassi. The tone was set. It was Sampras against the Rest of the World.

My earliest memories of tennis were of Boris Becker’s exploits in the ’80s, of the 17-year-old kid who upstaged the adults at Wimbledon. It was in 1992 when Goran mesmerised me with his incredible 37 aces in the Wimbledon final against Agassi, and still lost. The ten-year-old in me thought he had seen the future giants of the decade — the ‘rockstar’ who dated Brooke Shields, and the lanky Croatian who played like it was his birthright to serve aces.

The joy was to be short-lived as Sampras began his Wimbledon conquest in the following year, starting by defeating Jim Courier.

The 1990 U.S. Open champion had now truly found his mojo and, for the remainder of the decade, rarely found serious challengers on the grass courts of SW19. In later years, when I got into sports journalism, I learned the importance of looking at a sport through an objective lens, shedding favouritism and appreciating brilliance. In your teens, though, damn objectivity. You picked your favourites and unapologetically hated everyone that stood in their way.

And so began the era of excruciating frustration, interspersed with fleeting moments of joy. Goran had a second chance at a Wimbledon crown in 1994, only to be brushed aside in straight sets by Sampras, who, despite having had 25 aces zip past him, still took the third set 6-0.

The Sampras fortress was impenetrable the following year as well, as he took Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Agassi on the receiving end in the latter. It frustrated me that the ’90s lacked players who could consistently match Sampras’s big-game temperament, especially at Wimbledon. His bogey Grand Slam, the French Open, should have been adequate consolation, but I was never going to rest easy until he was made to sweat on grass and hard courts.

He did, to everyone’s shock, wake up on the wrong side of the bed one morning in 1996 when he lost the Wimbledon quarter-final to the eventual champion, Richard Krajicek, who at the time boasted of one of the fastest serves in the game. Sampras recalled later in his book that it was also Krajicek’s backhand-return off his own serve that caught him off guard, and after three hard-fought sets played over two days, the defending champion made an exit.

Normal service duly resumed in the following year. In 1998, Goran had his third shot at Wimbledon glory at almost the same time that his countrymen were making waves in the football World Cup across the sea. Wimbledon 1998 was also the Theatre of Goran. In the semi-final against his serving-rival Krajicek, Goran botched two matchpoints in the fourth set. It led to a marathon fifth, that stretched to 15-13 with Goran squeezing the daylights out of his own nerves and those of his fans watching thousands of miles away.

The Sampras tidal wave was waiting for him in the final and he nearly scaled it in three sets. Once again, Goran choked. He blew two setpoints in the second set, one that would have given him a two-set lead. Sampras admitted after the game that “this could well be Goran’s year”, but after five gruelling sets, Goran, already spent after the epic semi-final, lacked the mileage to topple Sampras. With every unforced error/winner/double-fault, I kept thinking: “You can’t do this to me again, Pete.” For me, a few weeks shy of my 16th birthday, it still wasn’t meant to be.

The sight of Goran with his head buried under his towel was one of the most heartbreaking moments in sport for me in the ’90s (second only to India’s meltdown in the Barbados Test the previous year). Nothing, it seems, could stop the Sampras juggernaut. There was no possible way to sneak past him at Wimbledon. He was like the bouncer outside a pub who could spot a fake ID with his eyes shut. The following year, even Agassi, his career reborn after briefly going off the rails, couldn’t outsmart Sampras, losing in straight sets at the Wimbledon final.

If they couldn’t beat him, could I? In the virtual world that is. I managed to get a copy of “Pete Sampras Tennis” CD-ROM from a friend and decided to take matters into my own hands. After brushing past the pushovers, I faced the big man. I don’t recall returning a single serve from “Pistol Pete”.

Somewhere along the way, the hatred turned into a grudging respect. I came to accept that Sampras, in his time, was the most clinical player with a complete all-round game. His failure to master clay notwithstanding, he was one of the best players from the baseline and his serves could be just as intimidating as Goran’s. He set the bar high because he knew how to close games out. What could bend him? Physical and mental pain could, but he heroically found ways to overcome those, like when he broke down at the 1995 Australian Open when his then coach Tim Gullikson was diagnosed with cancer. He beat Courier and nearly got his hands on the trophy.

His game was one worth emulating and it was in only in 2001 that he came up against a pony-tailed Swiss named Roger Federer, which marked the end of one era and the start of another golden one. Their fourth-round match at Wimbledon remains their only head-to-head, so what could have transpired had they faced off more often is left to the imagination. Sampras’s exit paved the way for Goran, a wild card, to finally claim the cup. It was the underdog story that we hoped for but were denied often when Sampras was at his peak.

The wait was worth it, for Goran and all of his fans.

Do I regret not giving Sampras more respect than he deserved? No. Would I have sustained my interest in men’s tennis through the ’90s had Sampras not existed? The answer is the same — no.