- Joel Drucker
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If I am King, where is my power? Can I declare war? Form a government? Levy a tax? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them.
-- King George VI in The King's Speech
It's good to be the king. Of course, Pete Sampras will tell you, he ruled a republic based not on title but merit, engaged in warfare on a battlefield where each combatant must play every minute. And though most athletes vanish from the arena, in tennis even a former king emerges from his castle and into something at least faintly resembling the cauldron.
So it was that Monday afternoon that Sampras took a private jet from his Los Angeles home one hour north to San Jose, where as an opening act to the ATP World Tour's SAP Open tournament, Sampras played an exhibition versus 12th-ranked Gael Monfils.
Off the court, Sampras' 6-foot-1 frame appears smaller, a slight hunch coming off like a mild coil, far more contained than the eagle-like talons Sampras stretched regally across the court to claw many an opponent to death. Prior to the match, the 14-time Slam titlist was escorted through the HP Pavilion on the kind of ceremonial tasks befitting the prominent: a friendly point-of-contact with SAP Open tournament director Bill Rapp; a grip-and-grin with a sponsor or two.
Then came a first-time encounter that could prove significant in the same way that a teenaged Bill Clinton met President John Kennedy. Twenty-year-old Canadian Milos Raonic's run to the last 16 at the Australian Open had put him on the tennis map. His lanky frame, fluid game and subdued manner merit comparison to Sampras'. Said Raonic, "Sampras has always been my idol in every aspect. His achievements, his demeanor, he was unbelievable." And though Clinton had been a mere 3 months old when Kennedy won his first congressional election, Raonic hadn't even been born when Sampras took his first Slam at the 1990 US Open.
How fitting that the meeting between former king and potential king took place in the President's Club of the HP Pavilion. It had been orchestrated by ex-pro and Sampras' friend Justin Gimelstob, on-site working for the weekly "ATP World Tour Uncovered" show. Bringing Raonic and Sampras near one another, Gimelstob set the stage.
"Pistol," said Gimelstob, harkening back to the ascending glory days when Sampras was given that nickname (itself an homage to lively hoops star "Pistol Pete" Maravich) by the coach he regards most fondly, the late Tim Gullikson, "This guy has a live arm almost as loose as yours."
Certainly that piqued the king's interest, who admitted he had yet to see Raonic play but then looked up at the 6-foot-5 youth and informed him that to succeed he would need "the whole package" and that it would be critical to win when he wasn't playing well. Raonic paid attention like a monk gazing at a shrine.
And why not? For these days what Sampras does with his racket is of less significance than the expectation of hearing his wisdom on tennis' mysterious alchemy of excellence. Certainly the exhibition had its moments. Here was Sampras, a man with a game crafted as exquisitely as the sleekest missile the planet had ever created, trotting out his liquid-smooth service motion, firm volleys, sculpted California-cooked groundstrokes. Across the net stood Monfils, a racket-toting Harlem Globetrotter, whose game can go from brilliant to flummoxing almost as quickly as the Frenchman can cover the court.
Granted, it was a bit of a head-scratcher to see Sampras, a man who once said he'd have preferred competing in the understated 1950's, wearing black shorts and a yellow shirt brighter than a mustard package. It was also interesting to note that after playing his entire career with Wilson rackets, Sampras, in the past six months, had begun to use a far more contemporary Babolat frame. Afterward, Sampras admitted he'd been stubborn, that perhaps a shift to a bigger, more powerful frame during his career would have enhanced his game, most notably at Roland Garros.
That the garage band beat the crooner -- Monfils won 7-6, 6-4 -- hardly mattered. This was an exhibition, punctuated by fun points and low-volume intensity. Following one long rally, Sampras took a seat near the spectators. "I'm almost 40," he yelled out. After another, Monfils demonstrated his youth, rattling off sit-ups. When Sampras broke Monfils' serve in the second set, Monfils asked Sampras to pose with him for a photo that he duly snapped with his iPhone.
All was prologue to Sampras' postmatch comments and his reflections on contemporary tennis. "Winning Slams is tough," said Sampras. "To win these Slams you've got to be special. Djokovic is now one of these special players. He's a great mover. He goes from defense to offense better than anyone, right up there [with Rafael Nadal]. The game has changed. They're very big, big servers, big hitters."
Pondering the way the game has evolved, Sampras said, "Kids today are hitting the crap out of the ball. And that's OK. Technology has a lot to do with it."
Of his serve-volley game that was once prevalent but currently vanished, Sampras said, "You've got to start it young. It takes a while to develop. You'll go through your lumps."
Invariably, the dialogue tilted toward fellow royalty, specifically Roger Federer, now working with Sampras' former coach, Paul Annacone, a sanguine and intelligent soul now akin to one of those cabinet ministers who served Roosevelt's New Deal and Kennedy's New Frontier.
Said Sampras about Federer, "I still see him as the favorite. Djokovic beating him in straight sets was surprising to me. … [Federer] has raised the bar so high." Praising the enthusiasm Federer still brings to his tennis at the age of 29, Sampras said, "At 29 I was burnt down, I was beat down. Sure, you like to see him come in more, but he's won 16 Grand Slams his way. He doesn't need to change anything. There's no reason to panic for Roger. We all go through losses."
Asked if he himself had discussed Federer with Annacone -- Annacone lives a few canyons west of Sampras in Los Angeles -- Sampras' first action was to burst into the large Joker-like smile that often indicates a desire to express himself more candidly than usual. But the diplomat took over. "He's trying to help," Sampras said of his ex-coach. "Paul's very smart." But perhaps even more notably, speaking of Federer and the role of coaching in tennis, Sampras said, "You can hear input, but when it's pressure time, you rely on what you've done."
Soon enough, Sampras headed into the night. His trail of words -- the whole package, kids today, we all go through the losses, pressure time, no reason to panic -- were all issued with kindness, candor and clarity, supremely in line with the kind of comments tennis' former champions have articulated for decades. As in golf and boxing, in tennis these words strike a particularly singular aspect, a baton-like ripple and communiqué through time, as if Sampras were channeling the genius of Laver into himself, on through to Federer.
And yet words carry only so far. As Sampras nears 40, to watch him walk the earth in jeans and a dark blue sweatshirt, to see him take in questions and stretch into space to formulate answers to familiar questions, is to regard even his own puzzlement at that boyish fellow who played that special brand of gunslinger tennis so well for so long. To listen to any tennis great is to ponder the notion that perhaps each Grand Slam title triggers exponential value. One times one is one, but two squared is four. For Sampras, the number is 196. For Federer, 256. What the heck does all that mean? How does that happen? Years ago, Sampras once said, "To win these Slams it's as if you have to get out of your own way." Hence the paradox: leave yourself to find yourself.
Then came one point in the exhibition, similar to one Sampras had played thousands of times in his career. As Monfils defended superbly, Sampras struck three distinct volleys -- deep, short, sharp -- revealing the legs, the hands, the shoulders, eyes and racket work that once commanded the kingdom of tennis. Leave the words to the bards and the swords to the kings. Here was the king's speech.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
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