"Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving." (Othello, Act II, Scene 3)
Superstar Pete Sampras reigns in an era when the muddled sports world celebrates anti-heroes rather than heroes and exalts personality above character. Strangely, the media act as accomplices in this farce. ESPN's so-called tribute to Sampras as one of the 50 greatest North American athletes of the century downplayed his virtues and belabored the "boring" image he has never shed despite its patent falseness.
Boring -- compared to what and whom? Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist and ear-biting fighter? Dennis Rodman, a cross-dressing psycho notorious for thuggish playing tactics and going AWOL? Latrell Sprewell, who sued rather than repented after attacking his coach? Europe's legions of drug-taking cyclists? Or even tennis' shamelessly boorish John McEnroe? The list of sports' louts grows, while attention seldom focuses on the good guys.
It's high time to note "Sweet Pete's" admirable traits and contributions to society, as well as to sports. So, in the spirit of fairness, I offer reasons why we should love, or at least like, sport's most unsung hero.
1. He often states his reverence for the sporting champions of yesteryear, such as Aussies Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson.
2. He plays his most sublime tennis in Grand Slam finals, where his 12-2 career record (.857 percentage) tops all men players of the 20th century.
3. He has a surprisingly dry wit. On the late Princess Diana's fervent rooting for him at Wimbledon, Pete joked, "I think she has a crush on me." On the recent rash of bonding among longtime American rivals Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and himself, Pete quipped, "There is a lot of love in the air."
4. His style of play is exciting, highlighted by his slam-dunk jump overhead, his signature flashy shot. His running forehand and diving volleys are terrific, too.
5. He doesn't duck his weakest surface, clay, unlike some past and present stars
who skipped major tournaments they knew they had little chance of winning.
6. He's an athlete you can proudly tell your kids to emulate. "If there's one role model in tennis, it's Pete Sampras," said former rival Boris Becker. "He's behaving perfectly on the court, he's a nice fellow off the court, and he's playing great tennis altogether. I think he's extremely good for the game of tennis."
7. He is straightforwardly honest. After trailing 4-6, 2-1 in his 1999 Wimbledon quarterfinal when power-hitting Mark Philippoussis retired with a knee injury, Sampras told the media, “There’s no question Mark was kicking my ass.”
8. He cares deeply about his family, whom he phones several times a week, and friends. Pete wept unabashedly on court against Jim Courier at the 1995 Australian Open after hearing the news that Tim Gullikson, his coach and confidant, was diagnosed as having four inoperable brain tumors.
9. Unlike some players who know and care little about the significant issues affecting the pro game, Pete invariably makes insightful and fair-minded comments and proposals.
10. He courageously admits it when he is wrong. Confiding that he truly missed the
espirit de corps and camaraderie that the American Davis Cup team displayed while beating Britain in April, Pete asked captain Tom Gullikson if he could join the team for its big quarterfinal in July 1999 against Australia.
11. He's a serve and volleyer -- on grass and hardcourts -- and there aren't many practitioners of this adventurous but dying art left in men's tennis.
12. Surprise! Pete has his own jet. Well, OK, he leases a Cessna Citation 10 to get to tournaments. And, in an ironic role reversal, far-flashier archrival Andre Agassi sold his airplane.
13. He is a great-looking, sexy guy, especially when he takes off his shirt during matches, say women and girls.
14. He respects his fellow players. When Pat Rafter last year said, "Pete is
becoming a little bit of a crybaby," Sampras responded: "Pat is not the type of guy to say that. I'm sure it was something the media egged him on to say.... I know Pat well. He's a stand-up guy."
15. Pete has been a frequent and generous giver to worthy charities, such as the American Cancer Society, the Tim and Tom Gullikson Foundation, the Vitas Gerulaitis Youth Foundation, the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, the ATP Tour Charities program, and Andrea Jaeger's Kids' Stuff Foundation.
16. His off-court training has given him a fitness level that has enabled him to win marathon matches, even though he suffers from a rare form of anemia that hampers his stamina.
17. Pete's willingness to talk candidly about both his professional career and his personal life is refreshing and humanizes him. For example, Pete said their time-consuming careers caused his recent break-up with actress Kimberly Williams and confided, "We didn't do anything wrong."
18. He nearly always exhibits excellent sportsmanship in matches, and typically limits his disappointment over a dubious line call to a look at the linesman.
19. Instead of "settling" for tons of money and the good life, as Agassi has done intermittently during his career, Pete sets his goals high and consistently works hard to attain them, breaking and tying a host of all-time records, including Jimmy Connors' ranking No. 1 for five straight years and Emerson's 12 career Grand Slam singles titles.
20. Pete has successfully handled the pressures and demands of being No. 1 as few others in the Open Era have -- with grace, dignity and modesty.
21. His appearance is clean cut -- no earrings, no do rags, no long hair -- although he could ditch the baggy, wrinkled, too-long shorts.
22. He is quick to congratulate others when they win a big tournament, as Pete did
when he phoned Agassi after his archrival won the 1999 French Open to complete a career Grand Slam.
23. Sampras is tennis' refutation of Leo Durocher's infamous “Nice guys finish last” line.
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