NEW YORK — People want to take Pete Sampras, throw him on a slab, hook up the wires and flip the switch — a la Dr. Frankenstein. They want a personality transplant, something from the brains of John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors, assuming those brains exist.
This is the hot topic in tennis media. Pete Sampras, they say, is a wonderfully nice guy and the greatest player on earth. Then they cut to another shot of Brooke Shields clapping in the stands for her shaggy boyfriend, Andre Agassi. Now that, Pete. Give us that, Pete. Can’t you get a girl we’ve heard of, Pete?
On the women’s side, it’s the same thing. They are praying for Steffi Graf to bang her head, suffer amnesia, and come back as Cyndi Lauper. Some color, Steffi! Or at least, take longer on the court. Graf’s matches at this U.S. Open take less time than getting a sandwich in the food court. And at least with the sandwich, there’s emotion. As in, “What? Twelve dollars for a & percent&$#! sandwich?”
Such a sorry state for tennis, critics say. No personality. Boring champions.
Well. At the risk of running counter to popular opinion, I suggest that the problem with Sampras (who lost to Jaime Yzaga in five sets Tuesday after fighting exhaustion and sore feet) and Graf (whose quarterfinal match is today) has nothing to do with them. It has to do with whom they’re playing.
And it has to do with us.
First, whom they’re playing. When fans harken fondly to Connors and McEnroe
— and the truth is, much of what they did was obnoxious, crude, and back then we complained about it — they are using selective memory. They don’t pine for McEnroe or Connors against the mighty Eddie Dibbs.
No. They remember them playing each other. Same goes for Bjorn Borg — whose personality makes Sampras look like Robin Williams. Borg was a snore off the court, but he was contrast for McEnroe and Connors. Shadow to their light. Their classic matchups were classic because you had to choose sides. You were a Borg guy or a Mac guy. The same way you were Lakers or Celtics.
Same goes for women’s tennis, where nostalgia sighs in the words “Chrissie and Martina.” Notice how they’re mentioned in tandem. “Chrissie and Martina.” Their rivalry excited us. No one — at least I think no one — yearns for Martina vs. Peanut Louie.
The point is, rivalries give us drama, not individuals. And whom does Sampras have as a regular rival? Jim Courier — who, to me, always looked a little washed out — now plays like it. One day he’s here, the next day he wants to quit. Boris Becker broods like a Bergman film (“Who am I, where am I, why is there air?”). Michael Chang is not strong enough to challenge consistently. Stefan Edberg is a new daddy and playing like it.
Agassi would be a great foil. But waiting for Agassi is like waiting for the next Bruce Springsteen album. Years can go by. He has won one Grand Slam title — Wimbledon — and for all the disco noise that he makes, his tennis has been so weak before this tournament, he wasn’t even seeded here.
If Agassi ever became what his tennis seductively suggests, he and Sampras would already be a ’90s Borg-McEnroe. Unfortunately, between Barbra and Brooke, Andre went wifty.
Is that Sampras’ fault?
As for Graf, well, she suffers, ironically, from the absence of Monica Seles. Don’t forget that Seles was the stronger player when that lunatic stabbed her in Germany. She is younger than Graf, and kookier, with a paparazzi persona that Graf shuns. The contrast would have been fun over the years. Have we forgotten that Seles beat Graf in the 1992 French Open in a great final that went to 10-8 in the last set? Or that one month later, Graf got revenge, beating Seles in the Wimbledon final? A few more of those, and nobody would complain about drama.
But without Seles, Graf is often too good for the field. Seles’ attacker said he did it out of crazed love for Steffi. In truth, he didn’t do her any favors.
Again, that’s not Graf’s fault. All she and Sampras are doing is playing the best they know how — and handling themselves with class. If it seems dull compared to our fond memories of Borg, McEnroe, Evert, etc. — well, remember, that was the ’70s and early ’80s. We had more patience then. Everything didn’t move at MTV pace. Everyone didn’t have to be Charles Barkley.
It’s the audience that can’t sit through three hours of tennis anymore, not the players. It’s the audience that is addicted to a Nike image. The truth is, if you stuck Agassi’s tennis inside Sampras’ body, he’d be worse.
On Tuesday, Sampras — who has been out with injury the last five weeks — played a terrifically dramatic fifth set, bending at the waist, sucking air, coming back from 5-2 to tie 5-5, while looking like he was one step from the ambulance. It was great tennis. But because it was long (nearly four hours) and against an unknown, it may not have thrilled the general public.
Well. Whose fault is that?