It’s been sixteen years, just about, but it still registers as a defining moment in the game of tennis. A bold new talent appeared on the scene. This one was especially sweet and we all recognized it. My partner and I were watching the just-concluded final of the U.S. Open which newcomer Pete Sampras had won. It was his first of fourteen Grand Slams. We remembered the comment from the booth, Dick Enberg said it, I believe, something like, “Folks, here’s the future of American tennis.”
Well, he certainly nailed that one correctly. We could all sense the vibe that day, this kid will be the True Blue, a guy for all seasons. He was going to be a great champion and there were no two ways about it.
Now the pistol-packing Pete is back. Sort of. The news of Mr. Sampras’ return to the game occurred several weeks ago but people are still digesting it. The man feels the bug again, and this is a good thing. But not to resurrect his career on the ATP tour, he’s made that very clear, he wants to play team tennis.
Team tennis? Hhmmm, that’s what I said to myself, with some surprise. What is surprising is that Pete Sampras was a champion who retired with all the big questions answered. Well, nearly all, except his inability to win the French. But his footprints are everywhere else in tennis. Pete took a good long swig at all the tennis world could offer, and he picked about the most ideal moment to go out, right after winning his home country’s tournament for the 6th time. Why would he ever care to pick up a racquet again, let alone come back, after all that?
This would mark something of a change in how Sampras chooses to display himself as a public person. He has been “above the fray” often as a tennis persona, something of a mystery. Robert Redford once said that the actor needs in, some respects, to hug his craft close to his chest, you want the mystery to always be there in your work. Once I read someone describing Pete as too “opaque” to be a really popular champion. He did have that reserve about him, and it seemed to shield him from being more accessible. So in a way it is good he wants to get back out on court with a different take on things.
But here’s the problem I have with Team Tennis and someone of the caliber of Pete Sampras playing it. It’s like taking this tremendous talent, akin to Niagara Falls, and pouring it into a thimble. I mean, Team Tennis is not the gut-wrenching affair that ATP tennis can be. We’re trying to re-invent Pete for the Common Man. I am not sure I like this, or will be able to watch it. Team Tennis is a more gregarious kind of thing from the regular tour, with a different emphasis. It might be more fun to watch, in a way, but do we feel the same competitive zeal? I’m shuddering already, and I really don’t want to. Someone help me down off my dilemma.
In film school, my teachers told us writers and directors to construct stories where the characters have a lot at stake. This is how you hook your audience and keep them. What’s at stake about Pete Sampras playing Team Tennis?
Tennis is a unique sport, one of the more idiosyncratic of all the individual sports out there. You see the athlete all the time, they are not covered in padding, armor or otherwise, obscured from view. You get to see their charming faces. Faces from across the globe, nowadays. You get a feel for them and their little quirks. God help me, I find myself missing Marcelo Rios some days. Not many. But some. Seeing the quirks on display makes for a particular player’s game, which makes for our happiness as spectators. Can the idiosyncrasies of Pete’s game shine forth in the venue of Team Tennis? This remains to be seen.
Pete handled himself well, I appreciated and admired how he went about his career. He could make the tough personal choices it must take to stay atop the field for as long as he did. He carved his own calm and poised style into that framework. So this is why team tennis seems like a completely different tangent for me to digest.
Athletes who retire are not an enviable lot. They’ve been in such a whirlwind for so long of playing and touring and touring and playing and trying to have something like a private life along the way, that when the merry-go-round finally stops, as indeed it must, it can often feel like a jarring thing. Suddenly you are out of the game and you are only early 30’s-something, what’s a boy to do with the rest of his time? What’s life going to be like for the next thirty some years?
For me it’s surprising to ponder that Pistol Pete may be bored. But that may be what this boils down to.
Pete wants to smack a few more balls around it seems, he is speaking of this as something “fun” that he now wants to partake of. Just having fun out there on a court, what a novel idea for a guy who was probably the most disciplined player of our time. I grew up hanging out with swimmers and swam a great deal myself, so the idea of just jumping in a pool and playing around is a novel idea. Especially when you’ve been trudging up and down lap lanes for years on end, logging thousands of yards. The notion of play gets lost in the shuffle sometimes.
Did Pete take a hint from his two young sons? Did he say, “Well if they can have fun, why can’t I?” Hey, maybe we give the guy an A just for thinking like this, how outside the box is that?
So how would Pete do once he’s back in the fray? Recently, tennis player and blogger Justin Gimelstob reported on playing with Sampras, and Justin was impressed by how strong his game still appeared. The serve and volleys were still very sharp, as was the cross court forehand. This after only a handful of times Pete has stepped on court since his retirement.
So a lot of the game is still there. Now, some people on the internet are feeling encouraged enough that they think Pete should come back on the regular ATP tour. That is not what he has said he wants, and I would tend to doubt that he would hanker to play on the regular tour.
But somewhere in the mix of whatever it is bringing Pete back, I cannot help but wonder if he wants to stay close to Federer. Not that they will ever meet again head to head, it’s too late for that now. But Pete has no doubt followed the drumbeat about Roger and how touted he is. Maybe Pete wants to throw a casual reminder of sorts, that before the Fed there was the Pistol, and don’t you forget it. Has anyone else picked up on the fact both guys are Leos? Born four days apart from each other. Not only do they walk the walk, they feel themselves kings of their walks. Another similarity they share is that both faltered for a time after their first big moment on the tennis stage. Sampras languished without winning a major tournament for several years after he won that first U.S. Open. And much later in his career, he suffered an absolute dissection at the hands of a teenage Federer at Wimbledon in 2001. But then Roger needed several years after that to catch up to himself, so to speak.
But if Team Tennis gets boring, maybe Pete should think of signing onto Jim Courier’s new Senior Tour sponsored by Outback Steakhouse. They might provide him – and us – with more of the taste of the Sampras of old. And along with Pete, we’d all get another look at that Master of Idiosyncrasies himself, Mr. Rios, who is currently atop the elders’ tour.
Sampras is 2-0 against Rios, but they have been very very close matches. I for one would pay to see them again, “seniors” or not. As for the Team Tennis thing, let’s wait and see.
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