Tennis: A winner lost on the crowd: Simon O'Hagan explains why tennis has yet to acclaim Pete Sampras

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The Independent Online
PETE SAMPRAS had linked himself with the greats of Australian tennis long before Lew Hoad died on the very day that Sampras was winning his second successive Wimbledon last week. But Hoad's death was more than just a poignant coincidence. Its timing seemed to raise questions about the nature of greatness in tennis - and whether Sampras, for all his achievements, yet has it.

At the champions' dinner last Sunday evening it fell to Sampras, as it does to the singles champion every year, to make a speech. In 1993, after winning his first title, he had been noticeably, if understandably, nervous. This year he was very different, 'exuding much more confidence', according to Mark Cox, the former British No 1, who was in attendance.

But Cox sensed something else. 'He talked about how he had grown up idolising Rod Laver, that he had tried to achieve that level of excellence, but that he still felt there was something he wasn't doing quite right in trying to gain the acknowledgement of the public. It was as if he was saying, 'I'm doing my best. But still people don't seem to be pleased.' '

Poor Pete. What more must he do? Nothing, according to the players. Goran Ivanisevic, beaten by Sampras in the final, says he is already 'too good'. Boris Becker calls him 'a class above the rest'. Cox believes Sampras has reached the stage at which opponents think they are beaten even before they have stepped on to the court.

Many of the elements of greatness are present in Sampras's game. An apparent effortlessness, says Cox, is one. 'With the best players - McEnroe or Laver, say - there is a timing, fluency and harmony, an instinctive sense of what to do that makes it look as if it's not very hard work.

'And then there is producing when it matters. That is also the mark of a great player. You would have to bring in someone like Borg here, a more robotic player than Sampras but one who was always able to get himself out of trouble when he really needed to. And how often have we seen Sampras serve an ace on a vital point?'

So what's the problem with Sampras, the missing ingredient that puzzles even the man himself? Part of it lies in the debate about a serve-dominated Wimbledon and the way it obscured Sampras's achievement in winning the title so easily. And the skills he displayed, consummate in themselves, hardly represented all that were at his disposal. But that is grass-court tennis.

Perhaps the real reason for the qualified nature of the tennis public's response to Sampras is the difficulty we have in identifying with him. Tennis is a sport of self-expression to a greater degree than most. But for all its beauty and perfection, it is hard to see quite what Sampras's tennis expresses beyond one man's professional dedication to the sport he loves.

If we look back to Hoad, a great in the eyes of almost everyone who saw him, we find a player whose appeal - charismatic, dynamic - had a lot to do with the attitude he adopted to his own talent. Tennis was only one element in a life led to the full. He would think nothing of carousing most of the night before taking the court for a big match the next day. 'He could win matches literally while he was drunk,' Cox says. His refusal to be in awe of himself only made him all the more awesome to others.

Laver had a different kind of aura - less that of the giant than of the genius. Cox played Laver at Wimbledon in 1969. 'With Laver there was the knowledge that he could hit winners from anywhere. That's what made his game revered - the fear of what he might do.'

And as for McEnroe - never, surely, have personality and performance been more closely bound up with each other. If McEnroe had not been a brilliant tennis player, you would have feared for a man who so clearly needed an outlet for his passions and neuroses. Sampras is so well adjusted you hardly feel he needs to perform in public.

Indeed, while he is pleased that people enjoy watching him play tennis - the way he showed off the trophy to the crowd outside Wimbledon was a lovely touch - that is not what seems to motivate him. Tennis is Sampras's career, and even at 22 he has it mapped out. None of this stops him being great - but it perhaps stops him being loved.

McEnroe, more than anybody, is the player who changed the expectations of the tennis audience, to the extent that people who could not bear his excesses now feel sentimental about them. And there are times when Sampras's brand of expertise seems lost on a generation brought up on cheap thrills. But that is their problem more than his.

Sampras is a great player, but it may take a few more years for the Wimbledon crowd to realise it. If you stick around long enough - and Sampras has every intention of doing so - then the glory will be yours. Ask Martina Navratilova.

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