Pete Sampras is baffled.
He looks at his tennis resume and thinks -- with a good deal of justification -- that the sports world should be agog at what he has accomplished at the relatively young age of 28. After all, he has won 12 major championships, equaling the all-time record established by Roy Emerson more than 30 years ago. He has finished the year ranked No. 1 in the world six straight times, a feat equaled by no one. He has been ranked No. 1 for more weeks than any other player ever to pick up a racket.
He's won Wimbledon six times in the last seven years, compiling a mind-boggling 46-1 match record on the hallowed lawns during that period. When the U.S. Open begins tomorrow in New York, Sampras will be seeking his fifth title there and a record-breaking 13th major. By way of comparison, the two American icons Sampras succeeded, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, won eight and seven major titles respectively. Andre Agassi, easily the most marketed tennis player of the current era, has won four.
Sampras has done all of this without so much as smashing one racket, screaming at one umpire or spewing profanities at a single spectator.
In return, Sampras has been rewarded with what amounts to a collective yawn. Brandi Chastain rips her shirt off to celebrate winning the women's soccer World Cup and ends up throwing out the first ball at Yankee Stadium en route to "Letterman" and a parade at Disneyland. Sampras takes his shirt off after winning Wimbledon -- again -- and someone hands him another shirt.
Why? Why can't one of the truly great athletes of our time get anyone to notice him?
There are two simple answers, but they tell an incomplete story. The first is that Sampras doesn't bring electricity to the game the way McEnroe and Connors did with their tempers; the way Agassi does with his outrageous outfits and wise-guy mouth. Perhaps that's true, but Sampras has the elegance and class of champions like Rod Laver (his tennis role model) and Arthur Ashe.
The second is that Sampras has never had a great rival. Every tennis fan remembers Laver and Ken Rosewall; Billie Jean King and Margaret Court; Emerson and Fred Stolle; Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova; McEnroe and Connors, not to mention McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. In each case, the players made each other better because they pushed each other. What's more, they played memorable matches against each other, major finals people still talk about years later.
Agassi should have been Sampras's great rival. But it hasn't happened. They have played four times in major finals, including Wimbledon this year. But they've never played an unforgettable match. Sampras won three of the four finals; none went five sets.
But the problem for Sampras goes beyond his personality and the lack of a great rival. Sampras is, in a large sense, a victim of what the business of tennis has become in the last 20 years. Since the tennis boom of the mid-'70s, tennis has become the worst-run sport on the planet -- even worse than baseball. There is no central power, no commissioner, just a group of Byzantine little power brokers, each grasping for a piece of the action.
The only constant in tennis is anarchy. And there is no better example of that than Sampras. When he finished 1998 ranked No. 1 for the sixth year in a row, he was infuriated that the American media barely noticed his record-breaking achievement. Of course, Sampras was in Hanover, Germany, in late November when he broke the record previously shared with Connors. He was there because, after a coup in 1990, the new powers that be decided to move the season-ending championships from New York to Germany, since there was more corporate money to be made there. If Sampras had been in New York on live TV when he broke the record -- and if it had been in September before football season really cranked up -- he would have gotten loads of attention. But not in Hanover, Germany. Not on tape delay. Not the week of Thanksgiving. No way, no how.
Beyond that, no one can tell Sampras -- or any top tennis player -- when he is making a mess of things. When Sampras and Agassi both decided to duck the dedication ceremony for the new Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Tennis Center two years ago, no one stepped in to tell them they were acting like spoiled, selfish fools. When Sampras decided to rejoin the U.S. Davis Cup team this summer but only to play doubles, no one -- including captain Tom Gullikson -- dared tell him, "Look, Pete, if you're back on the team, you'll play wherever and whenever the captain tells you to." The result was an embarrassing home-court loss to Australia, with the world's No. 1 player in an American uniform watching the United States lose all four singles matches.
Instead of emerging from that weekend as a hero, Sampras was a laughingstock, as was his entire sport. Who is running the asylum? No one. Not even the inmates.
And so, Sampras arrives in New York, on the cusp of history, almost unnoticed. Until and unless he breaks the record, the media will spend a lot more time talking and writing about the soap-opera stories involving the women's game and Agassi's outfits and outrages. Sampras deserves better. But he also deserves blame -- along with his entire burned-to-the-ground sport.