If you want to know what was going through Pete Sampras’ mind when he played, read his book.
Thank heavens for Peter Bodo, the best writer in tennis today. He’s taken what could have been a boring record of greatness and turned it into a fascinating look at the mind of a champion. Bodo is the “written with” guy for Pete Sampras’ book, A Champion’s Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis.
Let’s start with the two year process that turned Sampras into a winner. He’d won his first slam at age 19, the 1990 US Open, with no pressure because no one expected him to win. By the time the US Open rolled around again, he was resentful of the pressure that came with the title and when he lost to Jim Courier in the quarterfinals, he made the fateful comment: “I feel like a ton of bricks has been lifted off my shoulders.” A comment, Sampras’ writes, that “…exposed a deep fault in my competitive makeup.”
At the end of 1991, Sampra was thrown into his first Davis Cup match as the number one singles player in the championship final against France and lost both of his matches as the US lost the tie. The 1992 Wimbledon didn’t go too well either, but Sampras reached the final at the US Open against Stefan Edberg where he double faulted to give Edberg a set point then folded to lose the match. He’d played without heart.
By the end of the year, Sampras had figured it out and he summed it up like this: “The truth is that when you’re anywhere but at number one, you can hide.” Players sometimes get to number one and drop back down because they’re not good enough, but there are plenty of talented players who reach number one and decide it’s not worth the ton of bricks. Sampras knew he had exceptional talent but the true test of a competitor was whether he wanted to be number one and take on the pressure of holding on to it once he got there.
In 1992, Sampras won Wimbledon and took the title at the US Open, and, of course, ended up with a record 14 slam titles.
Roger Federer is the closest heir to Sampras and I found myself looking for anything in the book that would help me figure out what’s happening to Federer because that’s what we want to know: Will he figure out how to resurrect his game and get the three slams he needs to pass Sampras’ record? Or will he limp to the end of his career with one or two more slams and go down as Sampras’ equal at best?
For starters, Sampras describes what happens when things start to break down. He had 11 slams in 1998 and needed two more to pass Roy Emerson’s record. He had the energy but he was getting injuries and, worst of all, as he puts it: “the mind just snaps and fails to focus in the correct, relaxed way that helps you win tennis matches.” That’s what you’re seeing with Federer: he doesn’t come through on the big points.
At the end of 1998, Sampras set up a conflict between being number one and winning slams. He had a chance to end the year at number one for the sixth consecutive year to break Jimmy Connors record and he succeeded, but he ran himself ragged in the fall season to do it and it wasn’t just physical. As he got close to the year end championships with number one still undecided, Sampras felt the pressure so acutely that his hair was falling out and, for the first time in his career, he was so frazzled that he unburdened himself to his coach, Paul Annacone.
I’ll get back to that in a minute because it says a lot about the way Sampras dealt with pressure that he’d never expressed vulnerability to his coach before, but Federer had a similar pressure – possibly greater. Sampras was in and out of the number one ranking during that six year period, he reached number one 11 times in his career. Federer, in contrast, held the number one ranking for 237 consecutive weeks with no breaks to relieve the pressure and that had to take a huge toll. There might be some good news, though. After Sampras got his record sixth year number one ranking, he was free to chase his remaining slams and not worry about rankings anymore.
Back to internalizing pressure. Federer is also Sampras’ heir in on court behavior. No showy celebrations, just bat the ball to the side of the court and get on to the next point without showing much displeasure or, worse, disappointment. Sampras wonders whether he should have seen a therapist or been more willing to express his vulnerability to relieve the pressure. I’m assuming Federer has such conversations with his girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec, but he’s also gone long stretches without a coach and it’s a point of pride with him. It might be time to put the pride and his ego aside as Sampras did when he called up Annacone for a last push at a slam after having fired him the year before.
I had some frustrations with the book. Sampras says that his serve just clicked one year, “don’t ask me how.” That’s not good enough. It’s possibly the best serve the game’s ever seen and obviously we want to know how.
There’s also the issue of repaying early mentors. Pete Fischer guided much of Sampras’ early training and though Sampras doesn’t describe their financial arrangement, Fischer did turn up at the Sampras family’s house one day after Sampras starting making money, threw a fit, and made what Sampras thought were absurd demands for compensation. Do you owe mentors a chunk of your earnings after you’ve moved on to work with others? I’d love to hear Bodo’s take on that.
But it’s not Bodo’s book, it’s Sampras’ book, and as much as we spend entire media sessions trying to pick apart the minds of players who do everything in their power to keep the contents of those minds hidden – mostly from other players, we often don’t get very far and we have to wait until the player feels like telling us.