WIMBLEDON, England — If you’re trying to win a Grand Slam title these days, this is the sight you never want to see across the net: Pete Sampras, shaking a fist and yelling
He doesn’t do it at the end of a match. By that point, you’re already toast, and Sampras is waving to his coach and girlfriend.
No, the moment of truth, that Fist of Fate, happens earlier, when Sampras, maybe the best player tennis has ever seen, gets the tiniest edge, the smallest lead, as if he has just nudged past you going around the turn.
And you might as well hail a cab.
It happened twice Sunday afternoon, with Sampras in the toughest battle of his Grand Slam life, facing Goran Ivanisevic at Centre Court.
The combustible Croatian already had done something only one other man had ever done to Sampras — beaten him in the opening set of a Wimbledon final. Now, here they were in a tiebreak for the second set. Lose this, and Sampras would have been in a bigger hole than Magic Johnson’s talk-show career.
But Sampras wrote the book on competitive patience. He held steady, denying Ivanisevic two set points, waiting for a fatal error to pounce upon. Finally, at 9-9, with Ivanisevic serving, Sampras returned, drew him into the net, and saw him hit long.
Here came The Fist. Here came the yell.
Now, remember. Sampras hadn’t won anything. They were still in the tiebreak. He had just gone ahead by a point. But champions see things the rest of us don’t. Sampras knew, with that tiny opening, that he would capture that set, tie the match, and save his neck.
All that was left was to win his fifth Wimbledon in six years. It happened, about 80 minutes later, in the fifth set, and Sampras saw it coming the minute Ivanisevic let him break his serve — which is a little like letting Bill Gates have five minutes alone with your computer.
Sampras shook The Fist again. He growled like Tony the Tiger.
Kiss of death, baby.
The destination, not the journey
This is the mark of Sampras’ greatness. He knows when he has won — long before he has won. Like Michael Jordan, whose name I don’t throw around loosely, Sampras sees the whole game even as it’s being played, it lies out before him like a giant map. He doesn’t panic at curves, he doesn’t worry about dips and drops. He concerns himself only with the ending.
It would have been easy for Sampras to choke on Sunday, in a fifth set for the first time in a Grand Slam finals. The crowd was pulling for Goran, who had failed twice before on the last day at Wimbledon.
“Maybe Pete’s time has come,” you could hear the doubters say.
Sampras wasn’t having any of that. He lifted his game and found magic at the right moment. There may come a day when you can beat him in a final on this hallowed grass. But it hasn’t happened yet.
“This is overwhelming,” Sampras said of tying Bjorn Borg for second place on the all-time Wimbledon championship list, and coming within one Grand Slam title of the total record of 12, held by Roy Emerson. “It’s really hard to talk about. I’ve tried to stay humble in all my accomplishments.”
He can try. But he knows, you know, I know and the Queen knows that he plans on breaking all the records and setting the bar as high as he can.
And — barring a career-ending injury — he’ll do it.
He’s the best of our time, 26 years young, and it’s a shame that sports now requires tattoos, colored hair or endless TV commercials to dub a man a superstar. Because Sampras is every bit the Michael Jordan of his sport.
And Jordan doesn’t have to switch surfaces.
“Pete, there was a rumor that you would get engaged if you won today,” asked a British tabloid journalist. “Any truth to that?”
“No,” Sampras said, shaking his head at the question.
So it’s not just Americans who don’t appreciate him.
There are words for Goran
But other players know how good he is. Which is bad news for guys like Ivanisevic, who has lost to Sampras twice in the Wimbledon finals and once at the U.S. Open semis. Ivanisevic is around the same age as Sampras; he has no Grand Slam titles. Sampras has 11.
That’s not exactly sharing the wealth.
Yet even in defeat — and he was brokenhearted by it — Ivanisevic remains the best quote on the tour, and you hope that a Goran-Pete rivalry can become a regular thing. A smattering of quotes from The Big I’s post-match press conference:
Goran, does this hurt more than the first two?
“Yes, it hurts the most.”
Can you describe how you felt when Sampras took a victory lap?
“It’s the worst moment in my life. There are bad moments, when someone is sick or someone dies, but for me, this is the worst thing ever. Nobody died — yet
— but it’s the worst.”
What about the two set points you had in the second tiebreaker?
“I miss them both. It was ridiculous.”
Will you go to France to cheer on Croatia in the World Cup?
“I cannot cheer anybody up. I can only kill myself.”
In the end, you were talking to yourself with your head in a towel. What did you say?
“That is between me and me.”
Poor Goran. Any other day. Any other player. He took Sampras to the limit, and he made only a few little mistakes.
But that’s when Sampras pounces. That’s when he rises. That’s when he makes an eye-blinking return of serve, or an impossible passing shot. And then The Fist shakes, and the hammer comes down. He beats you to the finish, he comes to the net to shake your hand, and all the time, you have that sound ringing in your ear, that guttural “YeeeEAH!”
I have been here for all his victories. I have heard that yell, year after year. I know what it is now. It is the sound of history.
Get used to it. He’s coming back.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.