Tennis Prose



Happy Birthday Pistol Pete Sampras

Happy birthday no. 50 to one of the greatest champions in the history of sport, Pete Sampras. Six years in a row as year-end world no. 1, fourteen Grand Slam titles by age 31, three of the most dramatic, unforgettable matches in history (Corretja, Courier, Chesnokov). A winning machine. Everybody knew what was coming but he could not be stopped. Today is a perfect time to share an excerpt of my book “Facing Sampras”…

Pete Sampras’ philosophy of tennis was fairly straight forward: Bring the heat on serve, attack net and let his racquet do the talking.

Now, rivals, friends and coaches are talking about one of the greatest champions in history.

In Facing Sampras, a new book by Scoop Malinowski, competitors and rivals of Sampras discuss in detail their memories and experiences of playing tennis against the seven-time Wimbledon champion, who reigned for six years as the ATP World No. 1 ranked tennis player (1993-1998).

Here’s an excerpt from the book.

“I think Pete transformed—in a subtle, silent way—the attitude of the game and the attitude of the best players.”—Sammy Giammalva Jr.

“People tried all sorts of things to get him off his edge.”—Leander Paes “

“He had a button that he could push.”—Todd Martin

“I always used to watch him break down Agassi which was always interesting.”—Wayne Ferreira

“It was impossible to play him.”—Emilio Sanchez

Jeff Tarango: “I beat him thirteen times in juniors. And I lost to him seven times in the pros [laughs]. Yeah, it was one of those things when I turned pro (after playing at Stanford University for three years), he said, ‘You gotta move to Florida, you gotta get up to speed. You gotta come out here at Saddlebrook, you gotta come out and grind with me.’ He didn’t like playing lefties. He hated lefties. And he wanted me to practice with him to get ready for (Thomas) Muster, to get ready for (Goran) Ivanisevic, to get ready for all the great players he was playing.”

“We had a lot of fun practicing and playing backgammon together, train rides in Europe. And we spent a lot of time traveling together, living in Saddlebrook. Because we were both from the same area (in Southern California). We always got along. We had the same coach (Robert Lansdorp). So I’d always throw some Lansdorpian things to him and they would catch. And I got along well with his coaches. We just had a great time on Tour.

“But he was such a great player that every time we’d get to 5-all or 6-all in the tiebreaker, he’d get me. That’s the funny part. We’d play a hundred pounds a tiebreaker the whole month before Wimbledon. And I’d usually end up two or three thousand pounds down. And then we’d play a game where I’m at the baseline and he’s at the net. And then I can start the ball and I can rip the ball as hard as I can but it has to go to him. And every time you’d miss the ball, the other guy would get two dollars [smiles]. But we’d time it by two every time. Because I was always hoping I’d get my two thousand pounds back. And then we used to go to the Gloucester Hotel and play blackjack all night. I mean ALL NIGHT. And go home and get on the Tube to practice at Queens. He had his own court at Queens.

“We just had a lot of great times. And it wasn’t like complicated times of all the time night clubbing and all the stuff you’d think we’d be doing on the Tour. Very simple. Let’s go to Pizza Hut. Let’s get a spaghetti and pizza and go to sleep. Just very simple stuff. We had a very good friendship but over the years, you know, the biggest time was when he was having that drought at the end of his career. And he was complaining about his back. And I remember coming in the player’s lounge once and asking Paul Annacone if I could have a few minutes with Pete alone. Paul was like, ‘Oh I don’t knoooww, you’re kind of wacky [laughs]. I’m not sure we should do this.’ Pete’s like, ‘Oh, it’s okay, it’s okay.'”

“I said, ‘Pete, you gotta give up the golf. You can’t play golf and tennis in the same day. With how hard you serve, that’s what’s killing your back. If you really want to come back, if you really want one more slam, you gotta quit golf.’ And he stopped playing golf and his back got better and he came back here (US Open in 2002). And I stayed with him here till after he beat (Greg) Rusedski. Because that was gonna be the last lefty he was gonna play in the draw. And I needed to get back over to Europe to play some other tournaments. When he beat Rusedski, I remember talking to Mrs. Sampras, then Miss Wilson, and she was like, ‘You can’t leave! You’re his good luck charm.’ And I said, ‘Pete’s never needed me as a good luck charm. He’ll be just fine. He’s gonna win this.’ She’s like, ‘You think so?’ And the rest is history. I was a little upset he retired like that but he said he wanted to go out being No. 1. And that’s the way he wanted to remember it.”

Question: Lasting memory of Pete?

Jeff Tarango: “Lasting memory of Pete Sampras…his little chuckle, his heh-heh-heh-heh… We were playing, I think, the last tiebreaker for a hundred pounds. And I had him. I was up like 5-3 in the tiebreaker. And it was my serve. And (I) served out wide to his backhand and he hit a clean backhand winner down the line and he goes, ‘Heh-heh, nobody thinks I can hit that shot.’ I said, ‘Because you only make one a day.’ He said, ‘That’s all I need.'” [Laughter]

Facing Sampras is available on Amazon for $9.99 or $4.99 on Kindle.

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  • Vijay · August 16, 2021 at 12:23 pm

    Nice collection, Scoop. Pete could have been the best ever if he had been pushed a little more. But had no one to do it. I think he’s the only one who, at his prime, could have challenged the big three in their respective primes, which for Fed was 3-4 years ago. Pity Pete quit so early. It’s strange to say, but I really believe he underachieved.

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 16, 2021 at 12:46 pm

    Vijay… let me get that straight, six years in a row year end no. 1 and 15 majors, most ever to that point… … underachieved??!? He conquered the sport totally. There was nothing left to prove. Though I agree with your notion that if he was locked in a 15-15-15 race with Agassi and say Courier, they all would have stuck around and kept battling it out for supremacy. But Pete was too dominant and he found the perfect way to say goodbye. Agassi’s farewell was something special too.

  • Vijay · August 16, 2021 at 5:43 pm

    Scoop, you’re making my point for me. It’s hard to motivate oneself when there’s no one close to you, and for a decade, no one was. He figured no one would reach 14 for another 50 years. And so he left on his own terms.

    But let me ask you: If he had someone to push him, a lefty perhaps, with great topspin who kept attacking his backhand, do you not think Pete would have improved that stroke, much like Roger did? And why, for a decade, was Pete not winning at least two slams a year?

    As Tarango noted, he was playing golf, thinking about life after tennis, because tennis in your 30s was unheard of. But Pete was as good an athlete as anyone else out there. Bigger serve, impeccable volleys, his backhand improved considerably over the years, still had a weird forehand till the end, and relied too much on his athleticism. The big three have all improved their games in significant ways over the course of their careers, and I’m not sure you could say Pete did quite the same. He could have, in my opinion, but didn’t because he didn’t feel the need. Which is why I say he underachieved.

  • Scoop Malinowski · August 16, 2021 at 10:52 pm

    Vijay, Rios should have been the lefty antagonist for Pete but Rios didn’t live up to the challenge. Rios only played Pete twice in their careers, 76 76 64 at Roland Garros and another close match in Madrid I believe. Both won by Pete. Weird how they only played twice and Steve Johnson and Taylor Fritz just played three times in a month. Hewitt and Woodforde I believe drew each other four tournaments in a row too in the 90s. Yes I do believe if Pete had a Rafa breathing down his neck it would have challenged him and motivated him to become a better player. But Pete did have Hewitt breathing down his neck and he did not fully solve the Hewitt puzzle. Safin also was a lot of trouble for Pete. Maybe those two discouraged Pete’s drive a bit? Also getting married seemed to effect his game and results and focus and energy on tennis. It’s an interesting subject, maybe only Pete can really say.



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