Sampras' game netted in boy-next-door image


PHILADELPHIA -- Pete Sampras remains too good too be true.

He respects umpires, lauds opponents, signs autographs and obliges sponsors. In a more genteel age, none of this would be out of the ordinary. But after the contentious reigns of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, after gaudy appearance fees and seven-figure endorsement contracts eroded the game's structure, after the tennis boom and the tennis bust, Sampras still is the refreshing throwback all dressed up in white.

Sampras would be excused for showing at least some signs of becoming a spoiled tennis brat surrounded by sycophants. Last September at age 19, he became the youngest champion in U.S. Open history. He won the $2 million Grand Slam Cup final in December and picked up millions in endorsement contracts. Nearly overnight, he was transformed from a high school dropout into an international sports star.

Despite achieving fame and fortune, Sampras retains his boy-next-door image. He still has that same crooked smile and disarming manner several months and millions of dollars after his breathtaking ascent to the top of his sport.

"A lot of people talk about my attitude on the court," he said. "It's not something I'm trying to do. It's just the way I am. I'll be professional. I'm not trying to present an image. I'm just a nice guy."

After shin splints forced him to the sidelines for one month, Sampras is back on the court during this week's U.S. Pro Indoor. It was here last February that Sampras launched his rise from obscurity to stardom. He entered the Pro Indoor as the 81st-ranked player in the world and won his first tournament title.

This year, Sampras is No. 5 in the world, and his sights are set clearly on No. 1, the position held by Boris Becker. Last night, Sampras survived three set points to beat Malivai Washington, 6-3, 7-6 (9-7).

Unlike other phenoms whose stars shine brightly before burnout, Sampras has no intention of tossing away his future on quick-buck exhibitions and non-stop tournament appearances. He made a tough decision to give his aching legs a rest and bypass January's Australian Open.

"The shin splints are fine, now," he said. "They were pretty sore down in Australia and the doctors said if I continued to play, I could get a stress fracture. I took a few weeks off to recuperate. I want a good year. If I had played in pain, I would have jeopardized the whole year."

Sampras is discovering what it's like to be both a veteran player and a fledgling conglomerate. He can pick and choose his appearances, timing his season just right to reach a peak for the big three of the spring and summer: the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships. Off the court, Sampras is reaping the benefits of new endorsements with Wilson, Bausch & Lomb and Movado watches.

Despite his wealth, which includes more than $3 million in prize money, Sampras isn't a candidate for a conspicuous consumption award. He still drives a Toyota 4-Runner he won in a tournament last year, and he moved away from his parent's home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. and into a condominium near his training base in Bradenton, Fla.

After a brief break with his coach, Joe Brandi, Sampras patched up their differences recently by working out a new contract. Believe it or not, the whole idea of paying a coach a salary is something new for Sampras, who still is growing accustomed to dealing with the business of tennis.

"The money is surely a different level then before," he said. "It's something I know where it is. I'm not concerned about it. I don't want it to get to my head and take away from my desire."

Fame hasn't destroyed Sampras' private world. Sometimes, autograph-seekers interrupt him at dinner, but generally, fans have kept their distance.

"I'm recognized to a certain degree," he said. "I'm not like a rock star. I'm not bothered. I've handled it well."

Sampras does not want to be known as a player with all style and no substance. He'll leave the "image is everything" ads to Andre Agassi. Sampras is after something purer and longer-lasting: tennis greatness. His idol and target remains Rod Laver. Sampras talks about winning Grand Slam events and becoming the world's best player.

"The expectations are much higher now," he said. "If I don't live up to them, people will say it was a fluke that I won the Open."

But the Open was no fluke. He recorded precisely 100 aces, and defeated tennis heavyweights Ivan Lendl, McEnroe and Agassi. Afterward, Sampras was honest enough to say, "I think I'm dreaming."

With a ferocious serve and volley game that is almost masked by elegance, Sampras appears to have the style necessary to rule the men's game. He has won on carpet, grass and cement, and claims to have the patience to cope with clay. Winning the Open may not have been a career highlight -- it may have opened a new era.

"It took a few months for that win to sink in," Sampras said. "I didn't really have time to think about it. Then, finally, it sunk in. I was amazed. I think I'll feel that way even when I'm 30."

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