Friday, September 11, 2009

Pete and Me: The Day I Became a Tennis Fan

Mother Nature reminded us all who's in charge today. And so, what to do on a rainy day? I say it's story time...

I know the exact moment when I became a tennis fan. It was a Saturday and I had just started my senior year of high school. I was relaxing at home when my father came in from the other room and said, "Come watch! Some 19-year old kid is about to beat John McEnroe!"

It is worth noting that my father has never been much of a sports fan. A tennis match was the sort of thing he'd watch while doing some mindless task, probably ironing on that particular day. But he knew enough about McEnroe to dislike him intensely - the archetypal loud, obnoxious American who did little to endear himself to the casual fan. And here he was, losing to somebody neither of us had ever heard of before. Suddenly Johnny Mac looked the dinosaur as 130 mph serves went rocketing past him. A new day was dawning before our eyes and we didn't even know it yet. The teenager would win the match in four sets and go on to take the US Open title against the more famous Andre Agassi in the final. His name was Pete Sampras. The year was 1990.

Up until that moment, I'd considered myself a big sports fan but tennis had never been my cup of tea. I'd watched occasionally but I was a team sport fan mostly. Sampras changed my entire perception of the game in a single weekend. For starters, Pete was only a couple of years older than I. Like me, he was tall and skinny. He even had bushy hair not unlike mine. He was kind of quiet, too, which I liked. In as much as I'd followed tennis at all, I much preferred Ivan Lendl with his down-to-business attitude to his more boisterous contemporaries. Sampras fit that mold. But his game was far from dull. It was fast, aggressive, precise and relentless. Sampras at his best was a force irresistible like nothing I had ever seen in tennis before.

And so, I became a fan, though still more a Sampras fan than a tennis fan. I'd watch his progress over the years from afar, only occasionally tuning in when he'd made it to the late stages of a Slam. But then, he hardly needed me cheering him on as he essentially took over the sport by the mid-90s. In fact, I developed a superstition that he'd lose when I watched. But I knew his game well enough to know after just a few points whether or not he would win his match on a given day. Quite a simple formula really: if he were hitting backhand winners from the baseline, there was not a player alive who could touch him. There was simply nothing left for an opponent to exploit. The trophies kept piling up as he went on a record streak of six years finishing as World #1.

But by the end of the decade, the rest of the world was catching up with him. The #1 ranking was no longer a foregone conclusion and the days of winning multiple Slams in a calendar year were past him. And yet, he came in to the final of the 2000 US Open riding quite a wave. Earlier in the summer, he had won his seventh Wimbledon and 13th Grand Slam tournament overall to break the career record. In the final, he was to meet a young Russian named Marat Safin, a first-time Slam finalist.

Safin won the match, which was upsetting enough in itself. But what was truly unbearable to me was how Pete had lost. Safin made him look old. He was clearly tired at the end. That wasn't good. Sampras was over the hill at 29. If Pete was old, what did that mean for me? I'm not sure I've ever taken someone else's athletic result so personally.

With the loss, I started following tennis more closely. I started paying attention to things like the year-end championship. Wouldn't you know, my closer attention was doing little to help Pete. Not only was he not winning Slams, he wasn't winning any tournaments big or small. Sampras went two years without winning a singles title. Even Wimbledon was no longer a sure thing. In 2001, he fell in the fourth round to a then-unknown Roger Federer in five sets. And then, during Wimbledon 2002, the unthinkable: Pete Sampras lost in the second round to George Bastl, the 145th ranked player in the world. Never before in his ATP career had he lost to such a low-ranked player. It seemed the writing was on the wall. Many in the press were calling for him to retire. But the faithful among us hoped for one last title. After the Bastl loss, any title would do.

And so, I began to follow the week-to-week tour, learning about annual tournaments in places like Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Still no titles for Pete. Finally, at the US Open, it all came together for him. Playing as the #17 seed, he took the title, again topping his old rival Agassi in the final. He had the storybook ending, nothing left to do but ride off into the sunset. He had played his last professional match.

It took the rise of Pete Sampras to draw me into tennis but it took his decline to get me hooked. By the end of the tournament, I was a true addict. I'd already found a new pony with Sampras apparently finished: Paradorn Srichaphan, a flashy, yet well-mannered player from Thailand whose career followed a completely different path. But through him, and the miracle of the Internet, I was able to follow the tour year-round, learning about things like Davis Cup zonal ties, something I didn't even know existed a year earlier. I'd discovered that I could watch a match with great interest even if I didn't care who won. In fact, I knew I was hooked when I could enthusiastically watch a tape-delay match even if I already knew the outcome.

Seven years later, my appreciation for the game continues to grow. Sadly, it is an interest I've pursued almost entirely on my own. My wife and daughter will watch matches with me but don't really care too much. I have loads of friends who are into sports but few with much interest in tennis. In truth, part of the inspiration to start this blog was the hope that a few of them might want to learn more. We'll see.

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