Pete Sampras' Book: Success Came at a High Price

Rob YorkSenior Writer IAugust 25, 2008

Once you discover a talent, you must decide what to do with it.

Some choose to devote their lives to squeezing every last drop of opportunity out of that gift, while others use their innate abilities less ambitiously—simply to put themselves in a happier, more prosperous position in life.

Pete Sampras chose the former option, and he details the rewards and sacrifices of it in his autobiography, "A Champion's Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis."

From an early age, Sampras was trained to become the best tennis player in the world. When he reached that position, he then sought to become the greatest who ever played the game.

The great Swiss Roger Federer has since eclipsed some of his achievements, but Sampras' most prominent records still stand: He won 14 Grand Slam tournaments, captured seven Wimbledon championships and finished as the No. 1 ranked player in the world for six consecutive years.

All of these accomplishments required some kind of natural talent: Sampras writes that, when he was a toddler, his father noticed that he could already "kick a ball well and throw it straight."

However, by the time he was a teen-ager, becoming the best required practicing daily, facing constant competition, having few other hobbies and never going on dates.

Then, once he started winning, it meant constantly carrying the burden of expectations. By the late 1990s, when his results became more inconsistent, it meant persevering, despite those who said he was washed up.

He was game for each of these challenges, though. In 1990, he became the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Open; 12 years later, he left the game a la Ted Williams, winning the U.S. Open for the fifth time in the last tournament he would ever play in.

The reserved, formerly loveless tennis pro then retired to a quiet life with his wife, actress/model Bridgette Wilson.

Tennis commentators who watched Sampras dominate in the 1990s regularly said that he made the game look simple, in that his sheer ability and guided missile of a serve allowed him to win points with little effort. By the end of "A Champion's Mind," all readers will be able to see how much labor his results really required.

They will also have a better understanding of why so many of Sampras' contemporaries failed to keep pace with him. It may surprise readers that the player Sampras most feared was not long-time rival Andre Agassi, but the German Michael Stich, who defeated Sampras five out of the nine times they played.

Both players had what tennis purists call "complete games:" terrific serves, great foot speed, solid forehands and backhands. However, Stich won only a single major title: Wimbledon in 1991.

"(Stich) didn't seem to enjoy life at the top, so he left the game at a relatively young age," Sampras writes. "But if he had played a little longer, and wanted it as badly as I did, he would have been extremely tough."

Stich, along with a few other players mentioned in the book, is often labeled an "underachiever" by fans and the sporting press. However, players such as these would probably say that they chose the path that made them happier.

Sampras may hold the distinction for most years spent at No. 1, but it wasn't Michael Stich whose hair was falling out in clumps in 1998 due to the stress of pursuing that record.

His story is often compelling, but the writing, done in cooperation with Tennis magazine senior editor Peter Bodo, is unadorned. This is understandable; Sampras never went to college and admits to reading only a few books in his life (the fact that his favorite is "The Catcher in the Rye" also does not bode well for his prose style).

English majors and literary critics may be driven mad by the book's cliches: We are repeatedly told of matches that went "down to the wire," or were "crapshoots," and that Sampras remembers a certain situation "as if it happened yesterday."

For these instances, as well as some of the book's factual errors, readers may be inclined to place more blame on "senior editor" Bodo, rather than on the jock writing his first book (though Sampras really ought to know that he, and not Agassi, won Wimbledon in 1995).

After all, Sampras says in the preface that writing a memoir was not an easy choice; with his quiet personality, he had preferred to let his results on the tennis court tell his story during his career.

Perhaps he decided that now is the best time to remind people of his accomplishments. Federer stands poised to break his Grand Slam title record in the coming years, and beefier young players like Rafael Nadal threaten to make leaner athletes like Sampras obsolete in modern tennis.

Whatever his reasons, and despite the book's flaws, readers can be thankful that he has chosen to document his experiences, and reveal the determination it requires to be the best in the world at something.

His tale may inspire some to go out and dominate their profession in a similar fashion; others may respect Sampras' drive, but remain content with a more easygoing lifestyle.

Either way, no one should pass judgment on decisions like this. The champions, though, tend to have better stories to tell.

(A note: I'll be out of pocket for a couple of weeks because I'm getting married on Sunday. I'll be on beautiful Jeju Island until the end of next week, and approximately two weeks from today I should be back with another contribution. Until then, all the best.)