By Peter Bodo

Pete Sampras unmatched

He is different now, this man who was once a mere kid named Pete Sampras. Different from the genial, lanky youth who so nonchalantly sowed aces on the tennis courts of four continents, different from the boy who met the world with an unfurrowed brow, a slightly crooked grin and a mild air of wonder that occasionally bordered on bafflement.

These days, there is an aura about him-a gravity that makes it impossible not to watch and study Pete Sampras as he strolls from his chair to the baseline between games. It is as if one of those highlight dots used in TV permanently surrounds him, demanding your attention, insisting that as unlikely as it may seem and as difficult as it may be to grasp, this man is different from you and me.

With 10 Grand Slam singles titles in hand at the age of 26, just two shy of the all-time record held by Roy Emerson, Sampras is on the fast track to becoming the best player ever, period. Of course, three Grand Slam titles are no gimme for any player. So we shall see.

But as we wait for Sampras's quest to continue at the Australian Open in January, we might stop to consider a richer and more complex issue: Just what exactly has made Sampras the most prolific male winner of major titles in 25 years, during an era when the conventional wisdom suggests that no man can ever dominate the contemporary game in the manner of a Don Budge, a Roy Emerson or a Rod Laver?

One key lies in the thoughts on greatness articulated by Big Bill Tilden, no slouch at tennis himself, in his fascinating book, Tennis A-Z. In a chapter titled simply "Courage,'' Tilden wrote: "Confidence and belief in one's self are almost essential to success, but conceit is the one certain poison to kill all chance of it. Take your victories and defeats in your stride, and keep your feet on the ground and your head a trifle smaller than your hat. ''

Pete Sampras has lived those words; it is the flip side of that so-called "boring'' personality that few pundits have bothered to explore. But humility alone will not win you even one Grand Slam title, as any number of egomaniacs have demonstrated. To win 10 requires not only a game touched by genius, but by a capacity for greatness.

True greatness is never about humility, or craftsmanship, or even talent. It is first and foremost about vision, the acute long-distance vision that enables a genius to pursue his art with the patience of a laborer, the vision that remains safe from corruption. Fame or fortune are destinations; true greatness is a journey. And it is a voyage to which Pete Sampras, the insouciant son of a hard-working Greek immigrant, is especially well-suited.

Say what you will about the thunderbolt forehand, or that service action of unsurpassed grace and simplicity. Lots of guys have big strokes and earth-shaking serves. Pete Sampras's greatest gift, and his greatest weapon, is his capacity for evolution, for taking the journey to greatness, if you will. Barbra Streisand may have been correct in calling Andre Agassi a "highly evolved" human being, but Pete Sampras is a different breed of cat. He is a highly evolved tennis player, in utter harmony with his life's work.

We take this harmony for granted now, as we take for granted so many extraordinary aspects of Sampras's record and person. But it is impossible to appreciate what Sampras has become without contemplating two incidents that transpired early in his career, when the jury was still out on whether this enormously talented but apparently nonchalant youth would become a dominant player.

In 1991, just 20 years old but already the defending champion at the U.S. Open, Sampras surrendered his title to Jim Courier in the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows. Follow-ing the loss, Sampras truthfully if unwisely conceded that he felt as if "a ton of bricks'' had been lifted from his shoulders.

All kinds of players, from Sampras's friend Courier to the elder statesman Jimmy Connors, dropped no less a heavy load on Sampras in the form of stinging criticism of his attitude. Looking back on the incident, Sampras now says: "If there's one quote in my career that I wish I could take back, it's that one. But the truth is that at that stage my game and certainly my personality were pretty undeveloped. That quote reflected the truth of how I felt. I wasn't sure then that I really could win another Grand Slam title.''

At the next U.S. Open, Sampras lost in the title match to a man at the absolute peak of his considerable powers, Stefan Edberg. It wasn't a bad loss for Sampras; it was a devastating one. "Up to that point, getting to the finals was a good result for me," Sampras says. "But when I lost that match, I was surprised to feel how it burned inside of me. I kept thinking about that match, and I realized that I had given up in it. Just a touch, but enough to lose.

"And I kept thinking of the fact that they only engrave one name on the championship trophy. It all sank in there, pretty deep. I came to this realization that getting to finals wouldn't be good enough anymore. It didn't matter who I beat, or what surface the match was on. I had to go through the shock of that loss to realize that semifinals or finals would never be good enough for me anymore. That match changed my career. It really did.

"From then on, I knew what I wanted and I went about getting it. I've come to learn that the only real pressure is the pressure you put on yourself, and for me that's the pressure of winning big titles, not beating this guy or that guy on a match-to-match basis. Now I expect to win every match I play, period. That's it. I'm not kidding. And I don't really care what the experts or analysts or media say, not because I don't respect their opinions, but because I kind of have what I want. You can say I'm boring or whatever, but the titles are there. I never wanted to be the great guy or the colorful guy or the interesting guy. I wanted to be the guy who won the titles.''

Since that loss to Edberg, Sampras has been nearly invincible in nonclay Grand Slam events. And just as significantly, he has been nearly impervious to all of the heralded pitfalls and dangers created by his swelling status. In our time, only Edberg and the re-doubtable Ivan Lendl had comparable capacities for resisting conceit and continuing to grow. But neither of them have Sampras's record.

Reflecting on this conditon, Boris Becker says: "Pete has a unique, perhaps unconscious, way of dealing with all of the distractions that cause problems for some of the rest of us. He has this way of keeping at arm's length the issues that could threaten his love for the game, and his dedication to it. That says a lot about his pure passion as a tennis player. And it makes life as a tennis player easier for him.''

Indeed. Early in 1996, following the tragic death of his coach, Tim Gullikson, Sampras held firm against the shock and sorrow of that loss. He reached the semifinals of the French Open, and later he won the U.S. Open. Later in the fall, two weeks after severing his longtime relationship with Delaina Mulcahy, Sampras beat Boris Becker on the German's home court to win the ATP Tour World Championship.

"Through all that time, Pete was truly hurting,'' says Gullikson's successor, Paul Annacone. "But he has a way of sifting through things and moving on. He can shut things out as a competitor, even though as a regular, everyday guy he is just as affected by them as anyone else would be. An inability to grow while playing at the highest level may have been one reason that a guy like Bjorn Borg felt compelled to quit at age 25. Or maybe the lack of growth ended up exacerbating the pressure.''

If times have changed for tennis players since the heyday of Borg, they have only gotten more difficult and complicated, both on and off the court. Yet at age 26, Sampras is not only wildly successful, he also appears to be fresh. As Australian coach Bob Brett observes, "Pete is busy proving that all the limitations and distractions people began talking about when Borg quit, and when McEnroe more or less disappeared while he was still on top, aren't necessarily legitimate concerns. Get somebody good enough and mentally capable of handling the climate in today's game and there's no reason why he can't play until age 30 or 32, and win 15 Grand Slam titles.''

If anyone appears designed to shatter the clichés surrounding the game today it is Sampras. Even his game is resilient, and in a state of evolution. As Brett says, "Most of the guys out there bring a game that they keep and use. Pete brought a game that he's developed, and one that contains even more room for development. It isn't just talent that distances Pete from the other guys. It's his ability to use and expand his talents.''

Sampras joined the pro tour with a formidable basic arsenal, but since then his game has taken on increasing tone. Early on, he was fundamentally an aggressive baseliner who relied on a booming serve and a lethal forehand whose potency was slightly diminished by the need to protect a conservative topspin backhand. Since then, Sampras has improved his backhand substantially, freeing it up from the worthy but narrow task of setting up a forehand placement. This has only made his forehand even more devastating. And using the flat or sliced backhand or the chip-and-charge return strat-egy has allowed Sampras to attack opponents more effectively and with increasing frequency.

Although Emerson's Grand Slam record is formidable, the man against whom Sampras will be measured is that other Aussie that he was taught to emulate: Laver. "Lately, Pete has been realizing the same thing that us old guys worked out in our careers,'' says Laver, who fully expects Sampras to break Emerson's record. "If you have superior tools, putting pressure on opponents causes them to make more mistakes. Then you not only win more, you win more easily.''

According to Annacone, Sampras possesses the greatest form of knowledge available to a tennis player: a deep understanding of his own game. "Pete can play different styles at the highest of levels. He knows his tools and he knows his options. So he plays his return games better than ever before. And his game is so well integrated that you can't attack one aspect of it and cause the rest to break down. Combine that with Pete's basic love of competition, his ability to play a third-rounder against an annoying guy on a lousy day with his own mind completely and totally there, and it's a pretty unbeatable package.''

For historical purposes, Laver's status as the only man ever to win the Grand Slam twice (1962 and 1969) may be unassailable, even for Sampras. But then the Grand Slam is different today from what it was even 20 years ago. In Laver's time, three of the four Grand Slam titles were played on the grass that was most suitable not only to the game of Laver, but Sampras as well.

As former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Stan Smith says, "If three of the four majors were still played on grass, you'd actually have to like Pete's chances to get a Grand Slam. He's that good on the stuff. The other thing is that while Rod's achievements were awesome, I bet that in either year that he won the Grand Slam you could count on the fingers of both hands the number of tough matches he had to play. Today, almost every match Pete plays is losable. I don't think Pete has to get a Grand Slam to be considered the greatest player ever. But I do think that he has to win at least one title on the clay in Paris to be put right up there with Laver.''

Nobody doubts that Sampras has the tools to continue winning on any surface, despite the growing, diverse number of legitimate challengers. And pretty much everyone believes that Sampras must win in Paris at some point not merely as a final proof of his greatness, but because it would represent his completion as a player. Sampras himself has played a curious cat-and-mouse game with the challenge of winning at Roland Garros, and the issue represents one of the few key areas in which the insouciance of his youth was a handicap.

"I didn't grow up thinking I could win the French,'' Sampras concedes. "In fact, watching Lendl and [Mats] Wilander play a match for eight hours, doing nothing with the ball, made me feel like, 'Why would I even want to win this event?' I see it differently now, even though I refuse to get obsessive about winning in Paris. I would love to have it, I admit that. It would complete my career, even though I don't think I'll feel that I had a lousy career if I never accomplish that. Still, I would hate to have all these majors and then a big, fat asterisk: 'Did Not Win French.' "

Sampras obviously feels ambivalence about the importance and value of the French Open.

According to Annacone, that may be his best weapon. "The biggest reason that he may go on to win Roland Garros is because he will go about it exactly the opposite way that Lendl went about trying-and failing-to win Wimbledon. Pete knows what he has to do; how could he not? But he won't put extra pressure on himself or obsess about it. What happened two years ago, when shortly after Tim's death and with no real preparation, Pete beat three great players [Courier, Sergi Bruguera and Todd Martin] to get to the semifinals, was the best thing that could have happened. In his heart, Pete knows he can win the French. That's got to make you confident that you will.''

Next year in Paris, Sampras may be prone to show more emotion, which may help him.

Despite sustaining his basic antipathy to showmanship-and to the critics who insist that Sampras should more frequently vent his feelings-it is also true that as players get older they tend to draw more and more on every potential reserve of emotion, and self-expression on the court is one such resource. Still, do not expect Sampras to begin hurling his racquets or sniping with the gallery any time soon.

"People,'' he says, "have this perception when I win majors that I don't look like I'm very ecstatic about it. I guess it isn't my way to look ecstatic. By the same token, if you just look at what I have to give up and sacrifice in my daily life to compete at this level, it would be very weird if in my own way I wasn't feeling ecstatic about winning.''

Fortunately, more and more observers are letting go of their preconceptions and misconceptions as Sampras continues to win them over to his cause with the most powerful and absolute argument of all: his record. Fittingly enough, this was something that Laver, whose only noticeable emotion on the court was a frosty disdain for the expression of emotion, saw coming.

"I said it early on and I keep saying it,'' Laver says. "You can get attention lots of ways, but the best way to build a name and the respect that comes with it is over time. The name you end up with then is something nobody can ever tear down, or forget.'' The name is Pete Sampras. It will last.