Somewhere in the carefully guarded recesses of Pete Sampras's personality there is a witty conversationalist and a bit of a neurotic and a very testy guy and all those other things he is accused of not being. They're down there elbowing for space with the nice, clean-cut young man. Every now and then, one of them will win out—like when Sampras goes out to dinner and has to wait for his meal. He starts squirming in his chair, and a swift 10 minutes later those famous good manners have totally frayed and he is saying, "Where's the damn food?"
Sampras would probably have about two hemorrhages if you suggested that he was anything other than a "nice, normal young guy," as he puts it, because he's very into appearances. Sure, Sampras is a nice guy, and he certainly looks normal. But it's as his brother, Gus, says, "Just because Pete is nice to you doesn't mean he really likes you."
Nice, normal guys do not have five Grand Slam tennis titles by age 23 and make slick commercials with Tony Bennett singing in the background. They were not prodigies from age seven, practically created by a mad scientist. The• do not call George Steinbrenner and Vitas Gerulaitis friends, nor do they appear on David Letterman. They do not pursue immortality, and they do not treat losing a tennis match like a death in the family. Sure, Sampras always shakes hands, and he never throws his racket. "But underneath it all," he says, "I'm trying to kick your ass. In a nice way."
If Sampras were just a nice, normal guy, he would probably be off somewhere with the rest of his generation, writhing in a mosh pit or hacking through cyberspace. Instead he strolled the deserted grounds of Wimbledon before the start of this year's tournament in a pair of checkered shorts and geeky blue boating shoes. Sampras rounded a corner and came upon Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall having a hit. Sampras has been invoking the names of Laver and Rosewall, comparing himself to them, since he was a boy.
Sampras put down his bag and pulled out a racket. He thumped it against his hand. At the invitation of Laver and Rosewall, he pulled on a pair of Nikes, no socks, and took the court, breaking only about 40 club rules on attire. Laver sent a backhand crosscourt. Sampras streaked after it and launched a vintage running forehand reply that ticked the chalk. "That'll do," Laver said.
Sampras's insistence on modeling himself after Laver, immortal for his achievements and not his haircut, is one reason there has been such a rush to declare him a bore. In that rush, the whole point of Sampras has been lost. Sampras is a driven, even obsessed young man who is brazenly reaching for a piece of history and doing so with the kind of physical grace and talent that comes along once in a generation, found only in the Lavers, Michael Jordans, Joe Montanas and Wayne Gretzkys.
So stop comparing Sampras to his peers. He doesn't have any. Guys like second-ranked Goran Ivanisevic are irrelevant—Sampras beat Ivanisevic in straight sets in the Wimbledon final, and going into the U.S. Open this week, Sampras's lead over Ivanisevic in the rankings was a staggering 2,223 points. Sampras has already equaled Boris Becker's five Grand Slam titles, is well on his way to John McEnroe's seven and Jimmy Connors's eight and is almost halfway to the goal, Laver's 11. Sampras's only real competition is the record book. "The older I get," he says, "the more I believe that."
But achievement is not chic. Rebellion is. And Sampras has never been rebellious. The closest he came was a little youthful alienation, which explains why Catcher in the Rye is his favorite book and his motto comes from Holden Caulfield: "Don't ever tell anybody anything." Because Sampras is private and ambitious, he has gotten a reputation as empty. It is unjustified. "Nobody," says his golfing buddy Gerulaitis, "is that uncomplicated."
The way Sampras sees it, his very squareness makes him the height of iconoclasm. While everybody shouts, Sampras wants to whisper. He isn't going to have a public catharsis just so we can all feel better about making stars out of loud but empty suits. That's boring? "You know, sometimes I think maybe I'm not the boring one," Sampras says. Right there he proves he is smarter than you thought.
Sampras isn't going to parade his neuroses, but he has them. Take his sleep. Don't ever, under any circumstances, mess with his sleep. "I'm definitely neurotic about that," he says. "I'm a world-class sleeper. I'm obsessed."
In perfect conditions Sampras can sleep 11 hours. But it is a princess-and-the-pea ordeal. The room must be totally dark. If there is a light on a clock radio, he covers it with a towel. The red light on the TV cable box, too, must be blotted out. He draws the curtains tightly, and then he attacks the thermostat, cranking the temperature down to a cavelike chill. "Room temperature makes me sweat," he says. At last he climbs into bed—and the sheets must be perfectly smooth, without a wrinkle.
There is one more requirement: "No one can touch me." His live-in companion, Delaina Mulcahy, is ordered to a safe distance. "Neutral corners," he declares.
So there. A bona fide Sampras quirk. Everybody happy now?
Underneath that older-than-his-years detachment Sampras is nothing but feelings and quirks. He is terrified of dogs; it's a real phobia. His stomach is temperamental. So are his feet, which are constantly troubled by tendinitis and require ultrastiff supports in his sneakers. Sampras's feet are so tender, he had to take a six-week break from the tour this summer, and he entered the U.S. Open having played only two Davis Cup matches since winning Wimbledon.
When he appeared on the Letterman show five days after that victory, Sampras revealed a wise-guy attitude lurking beneath his stiff demeanor. He cracked up the host with his imitation of Barbra Streisand cheering for Andre Agassi. "Come on, 'Dre. Come on, honey," Sampras cooed.
Still, Sampras can almost understand why the "bring label has persisted. "People today want controversy," he says. Sampras does nothing to help himself with a posture that borders on the depressive and an attitude that is beyond unassuming. When he walks by, head hanging, you can almost hear people thinking. That's him? Come on. He looks like my Labrador. "You look at some people, and they're on edge, and you can tell they're geniuses," Sampras says. "If someone met me, they wouldn't suspect it."
Sometimes Sampras doesn't even get noticed. He was relaxing in first class on a flight from Los Angeles back to Tampa last year when he realized he was sitting right behind Barry Bonds. "I recognized him by his earring," Sampras says. Bonds just went on signing autographs and chatting with a guy sitting across the aisle from Sampras. Finally Bonds gave Sampras a look. Sampras waited for the recognition to come. Bonds turned back to his companion across the way and said, "If this kid moves, then you could sit over here."
Sampras wordlessly rose and changed seats. For the whole four-hour flight he just meekly ate his meal and watched the movie. "It was interesting and weird and funny, and I kind of liked it," he says.
Sampras neither cultivates nor flees his celebrity. He seeks only serenity. He and Mulcahy live in a pleasant three-bedroom house on a golf course outside Tampa. The house, which is 5,000 square feet but not exceptionally luxurious, has the requisite swimming pool, pocket-billiards table and even a goldfish pond, but it is nothing compared to Wade Boggs's spread next door, which is four times as large.
Sampras barely touches his wealth—$10,273,112 in career prize money plus an estimated $2 million a year in endorsements. He tells his agents at IMG, "Just make sure I have enough for the rest of my life." Even his idea of celebrating another Grand Slam tournament title is moderate. He flies home to Tampa and greases out at Checkers or Fuddruckers, busting his low-fat training diet wide open with a cheeseburger. "Then he feels sick," his brother says.
Just because Sampras has simple tastes docs not mean he is dull, as suggested by his relationship with Gerulaitis, or Uncle Vitas, as he wryly calls him. Sampras, the supposed introvert, and 40-year-old Gerulaitis, the mouthy, flamboyant former champion, are an unlikely pair. Yet the friendship that began on a driving range in Florida a few years ago has become a mainstay for Sampras, who had lacked a close pal because of his nomadic existence on the tour since age 16. "I couldn't tell you I had any close friends in high school," Sampras says. "You need them. Vitas is someone I can talk to."
Sampras is wary of relationships. "I meet a lot of ass-kissers," he says. Gerulaitis is not just a confidant; he even did some informal coaching of Sampras at the Italian Open this spring when his full-time coach, Tim Gullikson, was on vacation. Sampras won, crushing Becker. "You know, I'm really tired of Pete getting knocked for being too quiet," Gerulaitis says. "It's just his way of coping. Nowadays if you don't have some weird slant on your life, people think something's wrong."
Sampras's strongest relationship is with Mulcahy, a 30-year-old second-year law student at Stetson University in Deland, Fla. Sampras and Mulcahy have endured their share of snide remarks and disapproving relatives since they met shortly after he won his first U.S. Open, in 1990, when he was 19 and she was 26. Many, including Sampras's family, initially questioned Mulcahy's motives in taking up with Sampras, especially since she once dated his former agent.
It was Sampras's first real romance. "Delaina was the first girl that I felt comfortable with," he says. "She's independent, and she understands. I don't have to entertain her." The relationship has had an undeniably good effect on Sampras. He not only has won four more Grand Slam tournament titles but also is talking about getting his high school equivalency degree. It is a subject on which Mulcahy is adamant and about which Sampras feels guilty, having left school after his junior year.
Much of Sampras's education, in tennis and otherwise, was influenced by Dr. Pete Fischer, a neonatologist in Palos Verdes, Calif., who was his coach and tutor. Every champion has one person he can never satisfy, and for Sampras it is Fischer, a fascinating man who makes a living by saving premature babies but whose avocation is tennis. If it has taken awhile for Sampras to show his engaging side, the blame lies partly with Fischer, who taught him there were just three acceptable statements on a tennis court: "In, out, and the score."
Fischer began working with Sampras when Sampras was nine. Fischer insisted Sampras betray no emotion on the court because, he believes, "the scariest guys are the guys who never change expression." Fischer ran film of Laver in the Sampras dining room and set his 11 Grand Slam titles as Pete's goal. He switched him from a two-handed to a one-handed backhand, converted him from a baseliner to a serve and volleyer, and developed that unreadable service motion.
But they parted when Sampras was 18 and at the peak of his Holden Caulfield stage. Sampras was being rude and, worse, not training. Fischer confronted him. "The only acceptable ranking for you is Number 1," Fischer said. Pete's father, Sotorios, defended his son. "What if he wants to be Number 5?" he said. "Unacceptable," said Fischer. They also haggled over money and Fischer's refusal to travel with Pete. The result was that the pair barely spoke until Sampras won his first major championship, the 1990 U.S. Open, at 19. Fischer called to congratulate him.
Still Sampras cannot satisfy Fischer. On a recent visit after a European swing during which Sampras won the Italian Open and Wimbledon but lost at Roland Garros, the opening line from Fischer was, "You know, Pete, you won't really be one of the alltime greats until you've won the French." Says Sampras, amused and angry at the same time, "Nothing is ever good enough for that guy. I come home from winning Wimbledon, and he says, 'You're getting there.' "
People have always felt they needed to cattle-prod Sampras, to jab a finger in his face and say, Hey! You could play rings around them all, even Connors and McEnroe. You 're the great Grand Slam hope, so start rubbing the sleep out of your eyes. Champions, alter all, are supposed to burn. If Sampras burns, it is with a long, slow flame.
"I look straight down, I stick my tongue out, I hit a great shot and just walk off," he says. "It looks casual, like I'm not really interested. When I'm playing well, I look like a genius, and when I'm not, people think I'm tanking it out there."
Sampras burns on the inside. Otherwise he wouldn't keep seeking out those never-satisfied types like Fischer and, now, Pat Etcheberry.
Sampras recently was lying on the floor of a sweltering garage in Saddlebrook, Fla., heaving. He was in the midst of a workout, preparing to defend his U.S. Open title. "No air conditioning at the Open," said Etcheberry, the Marquis de Sade-like trainer who has also been responsible for the physical development of Jim Courier and Sergi Bruguera.
Six days a week Etcheberry puts Sampras through routines: sprints on a stationary bike, lifting 500 pounds on a leg press, throwing a medicine ball around the room and doing abdominal crunches to the point of screaming. On this day Etcheberry piled more weight on the leg press. "Pat, Pat. I have 10 more of these to do," Sampras pleaded. Etcheberry responded by putting on yet another plate of weight.
"Inflation," Etcheberry said.
Sampras claims Etcheberry knows him better than anybody else these days. They have worked together since 1990, when Sampras had a reputation for being nonchalant. Etcheberry needed one 20-minute jog to know differently. "He has to be a half step in front the whole time," Etcheberry says. "And if you get a half step in front of him, he turns it into a race."
Recently Etcheberry discovered something else about Sampras. The longer he's No. 1, the more ambitious he gets. "Most guys, when they win, they want to take a break," Etcheberry says. "Not this guy."
No matter how big the trophy, Sampras has already started working toward the next title by the morning after. "It's all about winning," Sampras says. "It's all I really care about. It's the only thing and everything. I'm obsessed."
As if Sampras doesn't drive himself hard enough, Etcheberry is on hand to stretch him to the limit.
In July, Mulcahy waved the flag for Sampras in Davis Cup and saw him strip the opposition at Wimbledon.
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All alone at the top, with no rival in sight. Sampras may someday be seen as the equal of his idol, Laver.