By Peter Bodo

Of tennis and the media

Pete Sampras is not a bitter guy. Pete Sampras is not a broken guy. Pete Sampras is not a controversial guy, nor an unsuccessful one, nor one who has issues about which to feel either repentant or aggrieved. He's 26, at the zenith of his craft, and in harmony with himself and the world at large. So when he talks about the media, there's no reason to assume that he has a hidden agenda or a grudge to unload.

And this is what Pete told me not too long ago about my kind: "Here's how I see the media. The first year I won Wimbledon, I beat Jim Courier. I thought it was pretty good tennis. But to the British media, it was boring tennis and I was a boring guy with no personality. O.K. Second year, I play Goran [Ivanisevic], and it was boring tennis because it was big serves. O.K. The third time, I had a great match with Boris [Becker] and they thought that was all right. This year [1997] I won again at Wimbledon and they decided that I was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

"You know what? I didn't really change very much over those years, and my game didn't, either. I didn't become a less boring guy, or borrow someone else's personality along the way. It took journalists a surprisingly long time to focus on what I'm trying to accomplish, and now that they have, everybody is jumping on the bandwagon. Of course, I don't really care anymore, because I'd been slapped in the face enough times not to want to care. But I have to insist that all along it wasn't me who changed. It was they who changed. And that has made me a little cynical."

The only hint of disingenuity in those words of disillusionment is Sampras's claim that he doesn't really care anymore. I think he probably does care, but he is too proud to admit it. But the larger issue here is that if Pete Sampras--a brilliant, polite, friendly, live-and-let-live sort of guy--feels the way he says he does about the media, what does that say about us? Just this: Sampras feels as if he is being comprehensively judged by people whose instincts, insights and integrity he doesn't trust. I believe his sentiments are valid, and I find them scary, because if you dare set yourself up as judge and jury over people and events, rather than serving as an impartial witness to them, you incur huge obligations.

In general, though, the media often is unaware of those responsibilities. We stray from the psychic territory of the reporter into the terrain of the critic with alarming and often unconscious ease. We harbor delusions of "objectivity" (when the most that even the best among us can hope to attain is "fairness"), while we indulge our collective penchant for cynicism (which is just healthy skepticism on steroids).

The best defense we can mount for ourselves is to claim that, like hard-bitten big-city detectives who have seen just a little too much of the street life, we are shaped by the things we have seen and learned "out there." The problem I have with that defense is that I have been "out there" in this sport for about 25 years. And you know what? It just ain't that bad.

Instead, I've come to believe that one of the most formidable problems tennis has had to face in recent years is that too many of the people who cover the sport just don't really like it. "Wait,'' Mr. Objectivity cries out. "You think reporters should be tennis fans? You think they should like what they're covering?"

Well, yes . . . because the key thing to remember is that we always have feelings for such things, one way or the other. Most sportswriters choose their occupations because they love sports, but very few of these sports-loving people love or even know tennis, so they aren't nearly as open-minded about it as they are toward football, baseball or basketball. Worse yet, many reporters come into the game carrying a lot of silly, common baggage--the feeling that tennis is a country-club sport, that tennis stars are prima donnas, and that the business of tennis is distinctly more corrupt than that of other sports.

The one fact I wish that everyone, particularly the media, knew about tennis is that while it may be a sport with roots in the country club, the best tennis players come from as broad and diverse a background as the athletes in most, if not all, other sports. The single thing that most pro players, from Venus Williams to Sampras to Michael Chang, have in common is that they come from families in which tennis was not just a hobby but a way of life. That's how they got to be where they are. It had nothing to do with class or status. That realization alone probably would alter some of the knee-jerk prejudices that surround the game.

Unfortunately, tennis has become the sport that many people, especially in the media, love to hate. And one of the great ironies is that tennis is full of self-bashers. Just look at the way NBC network experts John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Dick Enberg laid into tennis in a notorious conference call held as a "promotion" for the network's Wimbledon coverage last year. In the course of that conference call, McEnroe said his sport "embarrassed" him (undoubtedly prompting some people to think, "Good, now we're even"), and Enberg declared that tennis lacks heroes to cheer, heroes like Tiger Woods.

I've got nothing against Woods. I just don't understand why he's a "hero," while his equivalent in tennis would be characterized as a boring idiot-savant whose childhood has been destroyed and whose psyche has been permanently and irreparably damaged by a control freak masquerading as his father.

You know, most of the stuff you hear anymore isn't even creative tennis-bashing. It's reflexive, stale and, coming from the likes of McEnroe or Evert, disingenuous. The interesting thing is that the dialogue surrounding the game underscores the extent to which people in tennis--even very successful people--develop love-hate relationships with the sport.

Tennis is a profoundly interesting sport that pushes all kinds of buttons in people and arouses all kinds of passions and prejudices. But there's something wrong when those publicly expressed passions and prejudices aren't as stimulating, convincing, logical or fair as the sport that generates them. And that isn't the fault of tennis, nor of Pete Sampras. A lot of reporters claim tennis is sick. I say, "Physician, heal thyself."