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7 Pete Sampras

IN THE age of compact discs, Pete Sampras is a vinyl LP. His is a
style that speaks more to the vintage collector than to the
cutting-edge consumer, and when he steps onto a tennis court, he is
the very embodiment of an earlier era.
Sampras doesn't audibly swear or visibly spit; he listens to Art
Garfunkel instead of the Meat Puppets; and he bucks the trend toward
big-bang-racket technology. His traditional bent has been unjustly
interpreted as a lack of personality. In fact, Sampras is a quiet
iconoclast whose stature, along with his record, has grown steadily,
to the count of five Grand Slam titles at the age of barely 23. He is
the most complete player of his generation -- and perhaps of a few
other generations as well. Sampras may never be a hero to the masses,
but he just might become a timeless classic before he is done.
The man with the biggest future in the game is strangely and
resolutely wedded to the past. ''Sometimes I really think I would be
happier playing in a different era,'' Sampras says. It is part of
Sampras lore that as a boy growing up in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.,
he studied films of Rod Laver and Roy Emerson and the rest of the
great Australian cadre of the 1950s and '60s, watching them as much
for their comportment as for their playing style. Sampras played with
a wooden racket until he was in his teens, well past the point of
acceptable behavior, while his peers were grabbing every new metal
and alloy they could get their hands on. Even now Sampras uses a
racket with a design that is at least 10 years old: the graphite
Wilson Pro Staff, a conventional framed racket.
While his rivals howl and bang, Sampras is a crooner, ''the Sweet
One,'' as Jim Courier so aptly calls him. Sampras attributes the
sweet quality of his game to those old wood rackets, which required a
player to finish every stroke. With wood, a player had to hit through
the ball and could not get away with slapping it around. No wonder
Sampras's game has such depth and distinguishing polish. He does very
little with the racket that is not utterly correct from a technical
standpoint, and his every move is eye-pleasing.
Not that Sampras's game is without bang. His serve is probably the
most powerful and accurate since Pancho Gonzales was unleashing his
boomer in the 1950s, and it is delivered with a right arm as supple
as a piece of dangling rope. His running forehand is acknowledged as
the premier single stroke in the game today.
The legendary greats of earlier eras have long recognized one of
their own in Sampras, even if full appreciation has been slow to come
from the press and fans, who have sometimes deemed his rhythmic grace
a bore. The Perrys and Lavers are openly admiring of Sampras's
talents and sometimes even go out of their way to watch him play.
When Sampras was still an unknown teenager, Fred Perry predicted that
the kid would someday win Wimbledon. Laver has said that he rarely
misses an opportunity to catch a Sampras match on television. ''Pete
has that ability to summon his best tennis at the moments when he
most needs to,'' Laver says. ''That's what the great champions do. If
he keeps doing his talking with the racket, and winning, everything
else will take care of itself.''