WIMBLEDON, England — Boris Becker stood at the baseline and covered his eyes, like a child playing hide-and-seek. Later he would say, “I had the same chance of hitting his serve with my eyes closed as I did with them open.” Perhaps, deep down, he was also hoping that when he lifted his hands, Pete Sampras would disappear.
No such luck. Boris peeked. And Sampras was still there, his expression the same, his machete — er, racket — rising to deliver the blow. Whump! Here came another ace. And whump! There goes another Wimbledon, stuffed into Sampras’ pocket like the second ball he so rarely needs. Take your hands off your eyes, America. Pistol Pete isn’t going anywhere.
And, to be honest, why should he? Here is a guy who, at age 23, has now won as many Wimbledons as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in their entire careers. He is the only American to ever take three straight. That’s history, folks. Yet pockets of fans all over the world are already making like Becker, closing their eyes and hoping Sampras’ bland persona and quick-death serves will somehow disappear.
Wait a second. Maybe the rest of the world can get away with this. Maybe Britain, which only gets excited when a player isn’t wearing underwear, or Germany, or Australia, or other tabloid nations that prefer scandal to skill.
But America? The culture that complains about Dennis Rodman’s attitude and Deion Sanders’ show-boating? What do we always say: Why can’t athletes be better role models?
Consider this statement: “If there’s one role model in the game of tennis, it’s Pete Sampras. He’s behaving perfectly on the court. He’s a real nice fellow off the court. And he doesn’t have a bad shot in his game.”
You know who said that? Boris Becker, on Sunday, less than an hour after Sampras broke his heart.
Now it’s true, after winning the title, Sampras pulled off his shirt, yanked on another one, and it was the same shirt. And this is pretty much Sampras; he’s as consistent as a sunrise. And his serve is just a slam dunk. Your best hope against it? “Rain,” Becker moaned.
Sunday, in the four-set final, Sampras never faced a break point. All match! Not one! That’s how accurate he was. Becker, one of the best returners in the game, could only watch ball after ball make like cruise missiles to the chalk line. “Pete had second serves that aced me,” Becker groaned.
Yes, this made for short points — which are not as much fun as long ones. But don’t take it out on Sampras. He didn’t make the rules. “It’s grass-court tennis,” he said. “People who understand the game know that.”
Besides, anyone who watched Sampras Sunday saw more than mere cannon fire. They saw marvelous volleys, wicked passing shots and returns that defy physics. Yes, Sampras looks like Peter from “The Brady Bunch.” And, yes, he tramps around the court with his head down, suggesting, as one Brit wrote, “a lawn-chair attendant in the off-season.”
But come on. First we complain about guys giving fans the finger; then we complain that a guy’s too quiet? I think we have to make up our minds.
You want a place to embrace Sampras? How about his heart? He dedicated this match to Tim Gullickson, his coach who is battling brain tumors back home. Sampras phoned him immediately after the win, and told him how Gullickson’s brother, Tom, was in the stands yelling, “Go Pistol!” just like Tim would.
Not enough? How about Sampras’ celebration plans? “I’m gonna go home and eat a good greasy hamburger, some fries, some Coke. Then lay around the pool, play some golf.”
What could be more American than that? And humility? How about Sampras encouraging Becker to take a lap Sunday with his runner-up trophy? Few champions would have stood for the loser waving to the crowd, blowing kisses. Sampras thought it was fine. This, after all, was the 10th anniversary of Becker’s first win. Let him enjoy it. “He’s a great champion,” Sampras said.
I like that. Who cares if he’s not dating Brooke Shields?
There’s a story about Sampras flying first class last year. Barry Bonds, the baseball star, was sitting across from him. Sampras recognized Bonds, but Bonds had no idea who Sampras was. At one point, Bonds looked at him, then turned to a friend and said, “If that kid moves, you can have his seat.”
Sampras thought it was funny. He got off the plane and went home, just as he does now, the three-time king of the biggest tennis tournament in the world. “Would you swap the title for the kind of cheer Boris got today?” someone asked.
Sampras smiled. “No,” he said.
He’s gonna be around a long time.
Thus ends a funky Wimbledon, which began with deflated balls to slow down big servers — yeah, real effective — and along the way featured the most dangerous backhand in Wimbledon history, that of Jeff Tarango’s wife, Benedicte, who slapped an umpire after her hubby quit his match.
This was also the Wimbledon that saw Murphy Jensen miss the fish and his match, Martina Navratilova win another title and Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario give us a game for the ages.
It closes with Sampras, a kid, joining Bjorn Borg and Fred Perry among the men who have won Wimbledon three straight times. At 23? And people complain he doesn’t throw tantrums? As Sampras once said, “The more I think about it, maybe I’m not the one with the problem.” There you go. Another ace. WIMBLEDON Pete Sampras at a glance
* Wins men’s title with display of power and efficiency; hits 23 aces and 22 service winners, defeating Boris Becker, 6-7 (5-7), 6-2, 6-4, 6-2.
* Becomes first American to win three straight years; first player to win three consecutive titles since Bjorn Borg’s run of five from 1976 to 1980.
* Sixth Grand Slam title moves him closer to recapturing No. 1 ranking he yielded early this year to Andre Agassi. By the numbers
SAMPRAS BECKER 1st serve pct. 54 52 Aces 23 16 Double faults 7 15 1st serve winning pct. 91 79 2nd serve winning pct. 61 39 Winners (incl. service) 88 68
Break pt. conversions 5-16 0-0 Net approaches 27-40 33-61 Total points won 138 108 Time of match: 2:28.