New tennis Hall of Famers share more than you think

7/12/2007 - Tennis

On the surface, this week's International Tennis Hall of Fame inductees from the recent player category, Pete Sampras and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, appear to have little in common beyond their year of birth, 1971.

From his teens, Sampras was touted, his lanky body and fluid strokes drawing raves and expectations. As his lifelong rival, former doubles partner and fellow Hall of Famer Jim Courier said, "Pete was always dangerous, always loose, always knowing that even in the juniors he was going for bigger victories down the road."

Soon enough, Sampras fulfilled those hopes. In 1990, barely 19, he became the youngest man in tennis history to win the U.S. Open. When he won the last of his 14 Grand Slam singles titles at the 2002 U.S. Open, Sampras joined Australian legend Ken Rosewall as only the second man in tennis history to win Grand Slam singles events in his teens, 20s and 30s. As tennis stories go, his was on a scale worthy of Leo Tolstoy. Call it War & Pete.

Sanchez Vicario also won a Grand Slam in her teens. At 17, she shocked the world when she rallied from 3-5 third-set deficit versus Steffi Graf to win the 1989 French Open. It was thought then that the tenacious little Spaniard had waged one of those fortunate campaigns, a fortuitous, one-off short story that was less breakthrough than aberration.

But that wasn't the case. In 1994, Sanchez Vicario earned a second title in Paris and, most surprisingly, toppled Graf in the finals of the U.S. Open and soon enough was the world's No. 1-ranked player. Although Graf returned to the top the next year, Sanchez Vicario had proved more than a one-Slam wonder. For good measure, she earned a third Roland Garros victory in 1998, upsetting sentimental favorite Monica Seles. A quintessential Sanchez Vicario quote: "I just think that if you keep fighting, anything can turn around."

So with Sampras, it's a case of early promise and extensive delivery. With Sanchez Vicario, more a matter of surprise and persistence. Sampras won mostly with offense, Sanchez Vicario with defense.

But here's where they share much. Billie Jean King has often said, "You don't want to look back when you're 45 and ask yourself 'What if? What if I'd really put it on the line and given tennis everything had, done everything possible to be the best I could be?'"

Neither of these two will ever ask that question. Both wrung every drop possible from their tennis.

In their own way, both were consummate professionals, utterly committed to giving themselves every opportunity possible to play first-rate tennis. Depending how you look at it, their mutual fidelity to the sport represented a form of exemplary selfishness or selflessness. In the case of the former, both were strictly devoted to their respective needs, blindly and willfully ignorant to anything that distracted them from tennis and the pursuit of success. A Sampras peer once called him "a minimalist."

In the case of the notion of being selfless, by being so committed to excellence, both paid their fans and opponents the highest form of respect. Neither Sampras nor Sanchez Vicario whined much about the demands of life as a pro. Neither lamented the stress of competition, of being famous, of having to struggle and travel and practice and perform.

Of course, there were also major differences shaped by their playing styles and personalities (which comes first is an unanswerable chicken-egg question). Sanchez Vicario was filled with pluck, the spunky little engine that could who endeared herself to crowds and eternally came off as the underdog -- even when she was No. 1 in the world. Perhaps even she knew her run to the top was a surprise, akin to a vice president who, by dint of odd circumstances, suddenly finds herself occupying the Oval Office.

If Sanchez Vicario was like a one-term president -- but a president, nonetheless -- Sampras was akin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For all the talk of Roger Federer as possibly the greatest player ever, note that thus far he has finished the year ranked No. 1 three times -- half as long as Sampras' record-setting reign of six straight at the top.

Moreover, Sampras' graceful and powerful game made it hard for him to be appreciated in the manner of his American predecessors, the pair of demonstrative, fire-breathing champions Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. As Sampras once said, "I've watched videotapes of me, and while it looks so easy, I wish people would know how much effort it took to get that far."

Perhaps in some ways, the current appreciation for Federer's liquid-smooth game is a makeup hug aimed toward Sampras. Pete, we hardly knew ye.

For as cool and tranquil as Sampras was in so many high-stakes moments -- his Grand Slam singles final record is a sparkling 14-4 -- expect to see him quite emotional upon his induction Saturday. This is a man with a deep sense of tennis history, a rich appreciation of the game's texture that he devoured not too soon after picking up a racket. That he was aware of his dreams at such a young age -- and attained them -- is powerful testimony to his deceptive passion.

Also inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this weekend: The master player category features Sven Davidson of Sweden, the 1957 Roland Garros champion long regarded as a classy competitor and as a catalyst for helping tennis enter the Open era in 1968. In the contributor category, the inductee is photographer Russ Adams, a 50-year veteran of the photo pits who's arguably the finest tennis photographer of all time.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.