We feel with absolute certainty that if we could only swing like that all the time, we would be our best selves, our true selves, our Authentic Selves.
-The Legend of Bagger Vance, Steven Pressfield
By Kim Shanley
To The TennisONE Community
Pete Sampras said there are ten things you have to do to be a champion. When he tried to practice for a few days to see if he wanted to make another run at Wimbledon, he found he couldn't do one of them. "When you're done, you're done," said Sampras, and announced his retirement.
George Bernard Shaw said, "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live." When I watched Pete looking up at the 22,000 fans in Arthur Ashe stadium showering down their love, admiration, and respect for him, I saw a man who had achieved Shaw's goal. The competitive fires had done their job, burned through all of his immense potential, and now here he was openly weeping in gratitude for the fans thundering, respectful applause, thankful that his journey was now done.
Every journey has its stages, and Pete's first stage (at least that the public witnessed) was the stage of preconscious greatness. When he won the 1990 US Open as a skinny nineteen year old, Pete wasn't thinking about his coach, his fitness, or his strategy. He simply played without thought, effortlessly producing one unreturnable serve after another. It was here we first saw Sampras's signature shots. Most great players have one signature shot (does Agassi have even one?). Sampras had three: his serve, his ripping cross-court forehand and his sky-overhead, a move of awesome athletic grace and intimidation. It was the equivalent of Michael Jordan playing tennis leaping above the rim of an imaginary basket and spiking the ball into your court. "Take that," Pete never said as stood at the end of the tournament holding the champions cup over his puffy, springy hair, grinning ear to ear.
The preconscious stage ended when Stefan Edberg dismantled Pete in the 1992 US Open final. "That really changed my career for the better," Pete said. "I felt like I gave in that match; I felt it was good enough getting into the final. After that, the fact that I gave in bothered me a lot. I learned the hard way and went from a kid who didn't know what he wanted to knowing exactly what he wanted in the course of one match."
Pete then embarked on the second stage of his journey, the conscious effort to become not just the number one player in the world, but the greatest tennis player of all time. In the next eight years (1993-1990), Pete won seven Wimbledon championships, three US Open and two Australian Open titles and became the player to hold the number one ranking longest (six years). But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
While Sampras established his conscious goal of becoming the all-time greatest after his 1992 US Open loss, he had to grow as an athlete and as a person. With all his natural gifts, Pete never worked hard on his fitness. After his defeat to Edberg, Pete began a systematic regimen of physical training. He was never going to drag two people on a sled like Courier or sprint up hills in 120 degree heat like Agassi, but Pete began to do something he had had only haphazardly applied to playing tennis, work.
After he achieved his first goal of becoming the number one player by winning Wimbledon in 1993 and 1994, Pete's coach and surrogate father, Tim Gullikson, was diagnosed with brain cancer. The day before Sampras was to play Jim Courier in the quarterfinals of the 1995 Australian Open, Gullikson, who had suffered two strokes in the past three months, had to fly back to the U.S. for treatment. Pete was alone, and in the match with Courier, he was obviously thinking about Gully, and quickly found himself down two sets to love. Pete had the best reason in the world to give up at that moment, but he realized not only would he be letting down his friend and coach if he quit, he would be letting himself down. He came back and won the next two sets, but at the changeover in the fifth set, Sampras couldn't hold his concern and grief for his friend at bay any longer. He wept into a towel, and continued to cry off and on during the most crucial moments of a close fifth set. Courier, like many opponents in later years, couldn't believe Pete could keep playing at the highest levels while looking like a basket-case. Pete literally would wipe away his tears one moment and serve an ace the next. Pete beat a flummoxed Courier, but lost to Agassi in the finals.
The hill Pete was climbing became much steeper on May 3, 1996, when Tim Gullikson, 44, died of brain cancer. Now he would have to climb the hill alone. The culmination of this stage of the journey came in the 1996 US Open quarterfinal, where Sampras faced Alex Corretja. After playing four hours and reaching a tie-breaker in the fifth set, Sampras was not only completely dehydrated and exhausted, he was sick to his stomach. At 1-1 in the fifth set tie-break, Pete walked to the back of the court and puked, receiving a time delay warning by the umpire. But with vomit streaming from his nose and mouth, Sampras continued on, seemingly barely able to stand but continuing to hang-in against Corretja, who wasn't about to succumb to feeling sorry for Sampras as Courier had done at the Australian Open.
The tie-break went to 7-7, and Sampras, barely able to stand, hit a pathetic 76 mile an hour first serve that missed. Sampras had obviously lost any control of himself or his serve, so Corretja shifted his return position to favor his lethal forehand, anticipating that this was the end. And then the miracle. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Steven Pressfield's godly caddie Bagger Vance says, "I believe that each of us possesses, inside ourselves, one true Authentic Swing that is ours alone." This swing is "the pure expression of his being, his inner grace and nobility, his power, his concentration and even his flaws and imperfections."
Barely able to stand to deliver his second serve, I believe Sampras was able surrender to completely to whatever destiny had in store for him and find the pure expression of his being and his authentic swing. Pete swung, sending a 90 mile an hour second serve out wide to the space just vacated by Corretja. An ace! Corretja was completely stunned. Sampras was now up 8-7, and had a match point. Corretja, still trying to fathom the incomprehensibility of Sampras's second serve ace, double-faulted, giving the victory to Pete.
After this match, the rest of the 1996 US Open final was anti-climatic, with Pete easily defeating Michael Chang in the final. Pete now entered the third stage of his journey, conscious mastery as he strived to become the all-time Grand Slam champion. It was during this period that I first noticed the Sampras shoulder-flex when he was feeling in the zone. Often it would appear very early in the match after hitting an ace, and Sampras, loathe to preen or showboat, but finding need for expressing the energy and force of his Sampras-ness, would flex his shoulders forward as he extended his elbows in a quick motion, sometimes delicately picking off his shirt from the points of his shoulders.
At the height of his dominance, Sampras reminded me of the Spartans, an invincible fighting force in the ancient world. The Spartans, like Sampras, never expressed emotion prior to battle. As the opposing army approached, banging their shields and screaming, whipping themselves into a frenzy to overcome the terror of battle, the Spartans were trained to remain silent and still. Then, acting in complete unison, the Spartans executed what they called "palming the pine," snapping their spears from a vertical into a forward position. The psychological effect of this one motion executed throughout the entire line of battle was devastating. Sampras's shoulder-flex was the sporting equivalent of the Spartans "palming the pine," and it sent the same message to opponents: you are doomed.
When Pete beat Pat Rafter in the 2000 Wimbledon, breaking the Grand Slam record, the Pete Sampras journey, by any one's measure, should have been over. He had been the number one player for a record six years and he had broken the all-time Grand Slam record. What more was there? But Pete said he felt there was one more Grand Slam left in him, and he wasn't going to retire until he had fulfilled his own inner sense of destiny.
So Pete began the fourth and final leg of this journey, perhaps the most mysterious and sublime part of his legendary career and journey. For two agonizing years, he pushed himself to win this final victory for no one but himself. But the more he tried, the more the goal seemed to recede, until he was losing in the first and second rounds of Wimbledon. His backhand, never his strong suit, seemed to be completely breaking down. The six year grind to become number one and win his 13th Grand Slam seemed to have exhausted him. The tennis god had become a mere mortal. His confidence plummeted and his mighty shoulders slumped, inspiring pity, not awe.
But the reason why sport is so fascinating, says Pressfield in Bagger Vance, is that it's a metaphor for life. On the playing field or tennis court, you have a chance to find your self. At the 2002 US Open, Pete Sampras began to reacquaint his body with his authentic self. The serve, the crosscourt forehand, and even a few sky-overheads all migrated back to the courts at Flushing Meadows and reanimated the six foot one inch frame of Pete Sampras. By the time he beat Rusedski and Roddick, the shoulder-flex was back. Yes, Pete was feeling it again, and the it was himself. When he played his great rival Andre Agassi in the final, I knew after Sampras hit a few backhand winners early in the match that Agassi was in deep trouble. The backhand was Sampras's Achilles heel throughout his decline, and if that vulnerability disappeared, it was all over for any opponent, even an opponent as great as Andre Agassi. Pete's serve, the "pure expression of his being," returned to its full power, and Sampras rolled over Agassi, hitting 33 aces. There it was, his 14th Grand Slam title, the one he won truly for himself, completing a journey of complete self-mastery in his chosen world of tennis.
Though he didn't know it for a year, Pete was done. He had returned from his legendary and immortal quest and was now standing in front of us, not in his warrior's garb of tennis whites, but in a strangely modish black outfit, looking like an ordinary young man entering his middle years, hair showing some bald spots, holding his baby while he gave his farewell salute to the crowd. At one level, it was a very sweet moment. No one deserved to enjoy a carefree retirement more than Pete. But at another level, I couldn't help feeling that Pete realized what he would be missing. He would no longer surrender his self into the white heat of competition and no longer experience the exultation of emerging triumphant, having moved another higher rung above the tennis immortals. Today, he was human again. And he was done.
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