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November 3, 2000
To watch Pete Sampras adjust his guts, is like watching Picasso mix his paints or Shakespeare prepare his quills. There is a sense of wonder, that something magical is imminent, that we are priviliged spectators to greatness. When Sampras strikes his first serve it is like the first bars of a splendid symphony.
Except that I'm talking rubbish, bullshit, tripe. Or so, to my astonishment, I'm told.
Fact is, ask people about Pete Sampras and they look as if they've eaten sour cream. They'd fly a thousand miles not to watch him. Because, he is colourless, as emotive as a Benedictine monk, has the personality of a lampost, doesn't own a smile, is a veritable tour de tedium.
Yes, Sampras is deliberate, methodical, disciplined. He will, always, take just one ball at a time when serving. He will, always, bounce it just once before serving. He will, if possible, not open the window to his heart even a millimeter for your perusal. He is a man steadfast, focussed and committed to winning. He is a man obsessed with realising his talent, concerned with chasing and making history.
For that he is a mortal sinner!
There was a generation, a time, when a man's singularity of style, his purity of purpose, was admired. It was not becoming of a champion to snort, rant, rave, confront, abuse, grab his crotch, tear his shirt open and expose his heart, mutter, moan, argue, pout, scream, weep.
There was enough beauty and character in merely the way they played: in the elegance of their movement, their invitation to any challenge, their breadth of anticipation, the efficiency of their strokeplay, their reluctance to embrace defeat. Rod Laver never called any man a sunuvabitch on court, or gave an umpire the finger, or treated tennis like some casual pastime. He was boring too!!!
It bothers me this Sampras business. Not because I personally enjoy watching him, but because if he is not our idea of the role model, then we are in terrific trouble.
To be a star in the modern sporting world demands more I am told. People are watching, Sampras must entertain, it is the very nature of the business. Oh, so tennis is a circus and he is the performing bear who does back-flips! I suppose excellence is not enough.
Ask Anna Kournikova. She's played 78 tournaments (yes, 78) without winning a single one; Sampras has won over 60. Yet when I go onto google.com and type the word Pete Sampras I get 60,700 references; when I type in Anna Kournikova I get 104,000.
So has Sampras got it dead wrong, should he wear a skirt, cuddle up to a few Russian gymnasts, model push-up underwear, to be worth buying a ticket for?
Should he put down his racket and pick up some How-To-Make-The-Front-Page books, and start learning the tricks of celebrity from proper, genuine, role models.
Should he learn the art of the obscene-call-to-strangers from Brother Shane; should he bite off Rafter's ear during a changeover; should he spout rap learnt from the new Allan Iverson (basketball star) record which go, "man enough to pull a gun, be man enough to pull the trigger"?
Should he proposition undercover policewomen for sex as US footballers do, snort some cocaine like Diego Maradona, ingest drugs like cyclist Richard Virenque, throw a match occasionally under guidance from cricket captains.
Should he make outrageous quotes like Glenn Hoddle about disabled people paying for past sins, call someone a '#@#$$$ )(*&^%" like Glenn McGrath after every few serves, posture and pose and generally be silly during the national anthem like the Maurice Greene-led US team after they won the 4x1000m relay,
Should he be more like Annoying Andre and disappear from the tennis circuit every nine months, make his disinterest in a match and its result nakedly apparent like Kafelinikov is wont to do, be instructed by Marcelo Rios in the benefits of being rude, surly and unpopular.
The issue here is actually not Pete Sampras. It is more about who we embrace as role models. It is about a changing perception of heroism, an altered view of achievement. Winning it transpires is not nearly enough.
In a sense, of course, we deserve the heroes we get. As Hugh McIllvanney, the gifted British sportswriter, once wrote, "Sport reflects the society of its times." Nothing exemplified that better than the Canon advertisement some years ago with Andre Agassi, whose catch-line was 'Image is everything."
Please, I have no grouse against characters, if anything they bring a different dimension to sport. I have no issue either with nostril-to-nostril confrontations, purple hair, squeals of delight, an occasional elbow in the ribs, a few harsh words exchanged, playing to the gallery, pom pom girls, music at halftime, disco lights on a basketball court.
But I have a problem when kids return from sporting events believing that unrestrained arrogance is to be admired, trash-talking is to be cheered, purple hair counts more than winning forehands, and it's no big deal when boxers promise to eat each other's children.
If I had a choice of where to take to my daughter, I'd take her to watch Pete Sampras. So that she'd know that the essence of sport is to perform, not to parade.
Mail Rohit Brijnath
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