'The hardest one for me will always be the French,' said Pete Sampras, sitting in the players' restaurant at Rome. 'It doesn't have to be this year, or next year . . . but if it takes me five years, 10 years even, I want the French.'
Coming to Stade Roland Garros, where he lost in the quarters in 1992 and the semis to Sergi Bruguera a year ago, Sampras is the most solid No 1 in Paris, at least since the last crop of Beaujolais Nouveau. As another French Open is uncorked tomorrow, with the gangling, fumbling, yet dangerous Spaniard Bruguera, and the plantation mistress Steffi Graf reigning, the feverish hope among purists is that Sampras will go all the way this time.
In our high-tech day of kryptonite slingshots in the hands of baseline-pinned players, producing a tidal wave of topspin, Sampras is an artist among carpenters. You would have to go back a couple of decades to find anyone so slick ruling the crimson earth of Roland Garros: the Romanian prestidigitator Ilie Nastase in 1973. And before that to Sampras's idols: Rod Laver in 1969, Ken Rosewall in 1968. 'Those are the guys I patterned myself after,' Sampras says.
Laver and Rosewall? Can Sampras be a student of ancient history, conversing knowledgeably about the dinosauric Wood Age? Apparently so. The man who formed Sampras, a Los Angeles paediatrician, Dr Pete Fisher - a moonlighting hobbyist tennis coach - held up Laver and Rosewall as models. In every respect. Strokemaking and demeanour. Together the two Petes watched tapes of the two diminutive Aussie gentleman geniuses, which stuck with Sampras longer than The Flintstones.
'Dr Fisher was very strong- willed,' Sampras says, 'with a long-range view. He wasn't interested in me winning junior titles - but to become a complete player for the future as a pro. That's why, when I was 14, he insisted that I give up the two-handed backhand, and start serve-and-volleying. After eight months, I was taking so many beatings, I begged him to let me go back to two hands.
'But nope,' Sampras, digging into an ice cream sundae overflowing with whipped cream, says. 'Where would I be now without his vision? Maybe playing college tennis. Maybe not playing at all. Who knows? After a while, I began to feel he was so right. And, you know what, my disposition changed tremendously. I'd been battling at the baseline, a little guy' - his growth spurt of six inches came at 17 - 'being overpowered. I had a bad temper. But once I began getting to the net and volleying more, I became, uh, what's the right word?' His
quarter-final victim in Rome, the young Italian Andrea Gaudenzi, labelled him tranquillo. 'Yeah, that's it, tranquil, and that's the way I've pretty much stayed.
'I can stay calm. Of course, I didn't in Lyons,' he laughs, thinking back to the nadir of his brief career: his Davis Cup debut, the final of 1991. Beaten by Henri Leconte and Guy Forget as the US were startlingly upended by France, he was overcome in the patriotic tumult, lost in a maelstrom of hostile sound. 'I was still hearing that crowd the next day when I was in a quiet room. I was so excited that I never even knew what the score was. I just played. That never happened to me before or since.'
I told him about the same sort of thing happening to the paragon, Laver, the first time Laver played Roland Garros, and faced a Frenchman. Mention of Laver, of course, stirs the season's possibilities. This is the silver anniversary of Laver's second Grand Slam, the most recent among the men. Laver made the first in 1962 when the Slam was limited to amateurs. Since then, Margaret Court (1970) and Graf (1988) have slammed, increasing the membership of this most exclusive of tennis clubs to five. Don Budge in 1938 was the original circumnavigator of this quadrangle, followed by Maureen Connolly in 1953.
Jim Courier, after subduing Australia and France in 1992, was the first American since Budge to reach that halfway house where Borg was imprisoned three straight years, beginning in 1978. But Courier's bid was rudely shattered in the fourth round at Wimbledon by a Russian qualifier, Andrei Olhovskiy.
But aside from a Slam, Sampras lusts for the French. 'That's very important to me, to have all four. Not many guys have done that.' Only two, other than Budge and Laver: Fred Perry in the 1930s, Roy Emerson in the 1960s.
Unlike most players, Sampras is keenly aware of the game's history and the place he wants in it. 'I play practically no exhibitions now. I want to put all my energy into the important titles.'
That gladdens those who were distressed when he passed up the Davis Cup last year, thus weakening the US effort which ended in an improbable opening-round defeat in Australia. Sampras will be back in the line-up alongside Courier for the hazardous quarter-final against the Netherlands.
Respectful, but not quite so careful in the history department, is Boris Becker, demolished 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 by Sampras in the Italian final. 'If I can't win the French I think it would be great for Pete to do it. Good for the game because we haven't had a Grand Slam in 20 years,' Becker said.
Here we go again. Would a Sampras victory provoke another 'Limey Slam' controversy, as we colonials called it 10 years ago. In 1984, Martina Navratilova, on winning the French, was declared the fifth Grand Slammer by the British press corps in concert with the International Tennis Federation. The rationale was that any four majors in succession, even over two seasons, was sufficient, and Navratilova had won Wimbledon, the US and Australian in 1983 and was thus closing the ring at Roland Garros.
But the rest of the world's journalistic opinion was wholeheartedly against, and Martina lost out on unanimous acclaim at the last hurdle by tripping on Helena Sukova in the Australian semi-finals.
Specifications for a Grand Slam are to be found nowhere in tennis regulations. Don Budge says: 'The idea was to win all of the big four within a calendar year.' Becker and others notwithstanding, Sampras agrees with Budge. 'I wouldn't consider it completing the real thing if I won the French.'
But Becker had something more substantial to say in Rome: 'Pete's playing tennis like I haven't seen anybody playing against me in all my years.' That laudatory line takes in a lot of useful people named McEnroe, Lendl, Connors, Wilander, Agassi, Edberg, Stich, Courier. 'He's flying, playing like somebody in 2000.' Sampras concedes: 'I think a lot of my potential remains to be brought out.'
Anyway his hate-hate affair with the good rosy earth that Europeans and Latin Americans adore, is over. 'I wouldn't say clay made me sick,' the concrete-bred Californian explained. 'But the first tournament match I played on it, I threw up all over the court. That was 11 years ago, at the US 14s Clay Court championships in Louisville.
'I think it was the extreme heat that got me. But I sure didn't like the stuff. I came to Rome in 1989 as an 18-year-old convinced I could never win on clay. Surprisingly, I did win my first match in the Italian, over Diego Perez, but Andre (Agassi) killed me in the second round. I had to go through a lot of embarrassing defeats, like in Paris three years ago. I had a terrific five-set win over a great clay player, Thomas Muster, in the first round. But I was so exhausted I could hardly stand up two days later against Thierry Champion. My head hung, I looked like I didn't care. But I was just worn out. That convinced me I had to develop patience and get a lot fitter if I was every going to win on clay. And I'd have to play a lot more on it.
'Clay still isn't my favourite, but I understand it more. I've learned to slide, and enjoy it. I like the challenge. Strangely, though, I have the most trouble at the net. My footwork there is uncertain, but it will come.'
His cautiousness a year ago might have cost him victory over Bruguera. 'Maybe,' Sampras nods. 'Sergi had overwhelmed me the week before, and I was a little in awe of him. Maybe I didn't think I was quite ready to beat him. This year I may not win the tournament - I still think Bruguera and Courier, for instance, are better on clay than me. But now I'm ready to beat any of them.'
Sampras may not yet be the king of the dirtkickers' ball, but can any of the rouge-stained royalty resist him?Reuse content