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Ken Kamlet is a theatre and sports writer who has written for numerous publications on and off the Internet ranging from the Washington Post to Spotlight to America Online, where he is a featured columnist as well as the host of a bi-weekly tennis chat. Most recently he covered the 1998 Chase Championships for both AOL and Exposure. In addition, his play Regular has received 2 professional Off-Broadway productions in NYC.
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Pete Sampras A Champion, But Not A Hero
By Ken Kamlet

To hear Pete Sampras announce his withdrawal from the 1999 Australian Open because of "fatigue" leaves tennis fans everywhere aghast, if not insulted, disappointed and bemused. For as long as he has played tennis, Pete Sampras has proclaimed loud enough for all to hear that the Grand Slam singles titles are his main quest, his reason for playing, the only tournaments that matter. Of course, the four crowned jewels of tennis -- the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open -- are highly revered by all who know tennis. A man of Mr. Sampras' ability certainly has the right to set such lofty goals as breaking grand slam records, especially since the majority of his peak years were during some of the weakest seasons the ATP Tour has ever seen in terms of depth among the players. He already has more singles titles at the slams than any player in the sport's history, save Roy Emerson who ended his career in 1971 with 12 singles titles.

How on earth, one may reasonably ask, could this guy possibly be the only player among the top 100 on the ATP Tour to whine that he is simply too tired to go Down Under in pursuit of the first slam title of 1999? At age 27, Pete Sampras has already established a pattern of laziness, unprecedented selfishness and egomania rarely seen before (and hopefully not again) in tennis. For roughly 5 years he has played fewer tournaments than almost any man ranked in the top 40, avoids the strenuous clay courts with curious abandon (his lack of interest in the red European surface has made it more than likely that the French Championships at Roland Garros will never see him triumph), takes longer breaks than any top ranked man (or uninjured woman for that matter) and incredulously shuns Davis Cup with only occasional cameo appearances to boost his ego.

Tennis players from around the world consider it the highest honor to be asked to represent their country on their Davis Cup team. It is not unheard of (especially in leading tennis countries as Sweden and Australia) to hear the guys offer their position that Davis Cup ranks equally, if not more so, in importance to the Slams and the Olympics. A trip to the International Tennis Hall of Fame will prove that almost without exception, every great champion of this sport has competed proudly, willingly and frequently in Davis Cup ties from qualifying rounds through to the final Championship tie. "Pistol" Pete has made in clear, time and again in press interviews, that he will only play at his convenience and on his own terms. Sampras clearly has no understanding of the team concept as demonstrated in his words and actions. As of 1998, Sampras had made overtures that he no longer intends to play Davis Cup at all among his more notorious moments, he blasted the United States of America for not giving him a ticker tape parade for his cameo appearances in Davis Cup.

Quite frankly the American team is better off without Pistol Pete. He has been useless for the most part, only winning a couple of matches per year. And at times, he's been a demoralizing presence for everyone involved in the quest for a championship. The clearest example was his horrible behavior in the 1997 finals against Sweden. He proclaimed weeks before that he would play singles and doubles (not waiting for captain Tom Gullickson to ask him first) and showed up in Goteborg, Sweden hoping to add another title to his resume as though it would be a singular effort. Instead, a calf-injury forced him to retire in his first match. And where was Pete Sampras as the Americans got swept away by the formidable Swedes in the remaining four matches? Did he even attempt to sit in the stands to cheer on his teammates, offer some moral support, show some patriotism? Not Pistol. He chose to hold a press conference, at the same time as the matches were being held, to proclaim the tie was over and the situation hopeless without him. When asked if the Americans had a chance, he told the international press, "It's over. It's time to go home."

The Americans have always had better success with Jim Courier on the team. Either under the pressure of being #1 in the world and defending champion of numerous events or while watching his ranking drop painfully due to a chronic arm injury, Courier has always gladly and eagerly answered the call to represent the good 'ole USA and he has never participated in a losing tie. Talk about a good luck charm! Just as importantly, his sportsmanship and respect for the tradition of Davis Cup has set an outstanding example for his peers and for up and coming young players who will represent the USA in years to come.

But Pistol Pete's childish tirades and self-centered moves have not just been directed at Davis Cup, his teammates or even the tennis establishment for expecting the #1 ranked player in the world to live up to his obligations. He has gone as far as admonishing fans and spectators for not cheering him on during matches and for not being more excited to have the honor of his presence.

In one recent example, early in 1998 he played back-to-back tournaments in San Jose, CA and Philadelphia, PA. The San Jose event was better attended and played to a more enthusiastic crowd. In Philly, Sampras actually stated in press interviews that the apathy of the fans in PA wasn't good for the sport and he probably wouldn't be back unless they gave him the reaction and recognition that he received and deserved in California. Perhaps it didn't occur to Sampras that the crowd in California barely noticed his presence. In reality, the enthusiasm was about Andre Agassi, a far bigger box office draw making a sensational comeback. And did it not occur to Sampras that it is HIS job to provide on- court excitement and personality because it is the fans that keep the tournament going? No sponsor is going to contribute to any tournament if they don't see fans attending and turning on their television sets. That's the whole point. They have a product to sell and are looking for an audience to sell it to.

This is a young man who has made zillions of dollars zipping around the globe in Concorde airplanes, staying in ultra-first class resorts, dining on the finest food and being treated like a prince by all his subservient hangers-on and he expects that Joe-Tennis fan is going to coddle him further? Not to say that he should pull bunny-rabbits out of his hat and levitate during matches, or even come up with the crass antics of Jimmy Connors but he could show a little personality, a little gratefulness for his good luck in achieving fame and fortune from hitting a fuzzy yellow ball over the net. All we get from Pete Sampras is a guy who looks like he just swung out of a tree, lumbering on the courts with his tongue dragging on the floor; flicking sweat globs with one finger at volunteer ballkids and occasionally projectile vomiting under pressure with no sense of decorum or even style.

Now, even worse, he is choosing to skip a major event simply because he's feeling a little tired. From what? He played 5 weeks or so in a row towards the end of 1998 to salvage his top ranking, earning bundles of money in guarantees and enormous bonuses from his endorsements for holding the #1 spot. Then he had roughly six weeks to vacation. How many of us in the real world can take a vacation, much less 6 week vacations, whenever we please? Indeed, Sampras endured a lousy 1998 and if it weren't for a surprise win at Wimbledon he would not likely have finished in the top 10.

Could there possibly be another reason is he afraid to play the Australian Open? Nah, it couldn't possibly be the daunting task of facing a draw that features all of the best of the current players in the world or could it? Maybe his weak, regurgitating stomach could not handle the prospect of facing the much more popular and equally talented Patrick Rafter on Center Court in front of his home town crowd?

In the end, the most amazing part of his withdrawal is what minor attention this story has received and how little emotion it has evoked. If a more charismatic star such as Becker, Graf, McEnroe or Evert had done the same while ranked #1 it would be a much bigger story. It would appear that few people care one way or another about Sampras appearing at the Australian Open and many doubted he'd win it anyway. That is a very bad thing for men's tennis when so few people are disappointed by the top player's absence.

In makes one wonder what kind of man he really is. Sampras says, "I'm a class guy" every chance he gets. It's pretty much his mantra. Somebody forgot to tell him that people with class don't need to point it out. And his #2 mantra: "Grand slams are everything".

Well then, it would certainly appear that Pistol Pete is shooting blanks.

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