Pete Sampras' Cold Turkey Moment
SCOTT SIMON, host:
When Pete Sampras was just 12-years-old, his father, who ran a restaurant used to go to the automatic teller machine to get cash to pay for Pete's tennis lessons. Pete had one coach for his forehand shots and ground strokes, another for his serve, yet another for his footwork and balance. This athlete who was considered the most inscrutable among champions has written a book about his life and tennis career, but there's no mention of him ever playing sandlot baseball or going trick or treating. The book is called Pete Sampras: A Champion's Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis, written with Peter Bodo. Pete Sampras, who won a record 14 grand slam men's titles joins us from Beverly Hills, California. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. PETE SAMPRAS (Tennis player, author): No problem.
SIMON: People had their eye on you when you were about eight-years-old, didn't they?
Mr. SAMPRAS: Yeah, you know, I was - picked up a racket around seven or eight and my dad saw that I had some talent, and took some lessons at young age, and tennis was pretty much my life. But it was a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice.
SIMON: So, I mean, are there occasions when you miss not going trick or treating or building a tree house?
Mr. SAMPRAS: Well, I had an older brother who was four years older and there were times when I was a kid when he would go out to the movies or to the mall I'd feel a little jealous that I had a tournament the next weekend or I had a practice the next day and you know, maybe going to college was something that I missed.
SIMON: How old were you when you turned pro?
Mr. SAMPRAS: I was close to 17.
SIMON: Let me ask you about a man who saw you play, kind of insinuated himself into your life as well as your career, and didn't leave for many years, and that's Peter Fisher.
Mr. SAMPRAS: Um-hum.
SIMON: He was a doctor and he saw you play?
Mr. SAMPRAS: Yeah, you know, I was - just moved to L.A., I was playing at the Jack Kramer Club and I was hitting some tennis balls, and Pete, who's a tennis enthusiast, was watching me hit and really saw I had some talent and sort of befriended my dad. And then one thing led to another where he really started to coach me and teach me and he switched my two-hand back into a one-handed backhand and really deserves a lot of credit for what he did for me and it's sort of an odd story, you know, some guys that doesn't really know how to play tennis. He's a terrible tennis player himself, just started the base of my technique and my game.
SIMON: There's a sad ending to this story, which we'll get to, but you said at the moment he walked into your life he did a particularly valuable thing by ensuring that your father could stay your father and not become your coach.
Mr. SAMPRAS: Correct. I mean, my dad didn't know a lot about tennis. He was very involved in my tennis, but he sort of was in the middle of us and enabled my dad and I to have a really good relationship.
SIMON: I want to linger a bit over the one-handed backhand.
Mr. SAMPRAS: Yes.
SIMON: When you were coming up, the two-handed backhand was becoming quite popular, what was the significance of Peter Fisher ordering you to use the one hand?
Mr. SAMPRAS: Well, I think it was the point of my junior career. I wasn't getting any better, I was sort of a typical counter puncher two-handed backhand, couldn't volley, couldn't serve and Pete just sort of had this idea to get to me to serve and volley. So I pretty much cold turkey went away from the two-hander and started hitting the one-hander. It was a tough decision, but I stuck with it and I think it was just more of the big picture that he saw was be more concerned about what I was going to be at 18 or 19 versus at 14 and so…
SIMON: I mean you lost some matches.
Mr. SAMPRAS: Knowing I lost the matches, I was - my ranking dropped, it was tough. I mean for two, three years there I wasn't having much fun and you know, my boy was Michael Chang, and I used to beat Michael, when I went to the one-hand I'd start losing to Michael and so whatever happen, around 18 everything just exploded. I got bigger, I got a little stronger, I developed a good one-handed backhand and it developed a certain volley of game. And I, you know, look at my career, look at the Wimbledon's that I've won and feel like, you know, without making that switch, I don't know if I would have won a Wimbledon.
SIMON: Let me ask you about some instances in your career. Wimbledon, '93, you were playing Andrew Foster, who was a low-ranked, British player and the crowd at Wimbledon pulling for the hometown guy. Now you had the reputation of someone who never vented emotion. But you yelled something to that crowd, didn't you?
Mr. SAMPRAS: Well, there was - I was - I got caught up in the moment and Andrew was the last British player. It was late, it was kind of a tricky match, and the crowd was certainly being pretty vocal. It was a smaller court and I could hear a lot and I just sort of wanted to get the mess over with and just put my hands up in the air and just, you know, it was something completely out of character, I just sort of you know, said a few things.
SIMON: This was strong stuff I think it's safe to say.
Mr. SAMPRAS: Yeah, you know, you get caught up in the moment and the emotion of the mass and the situation and you say a few things. Do I regret it? Absolutely, but it happened and…
SIMON: Let me ask you, there was a press conference right after the match, which you won, and you were asked point blank if you'd said that?
Mr. SAMPRAS: Yeah, I froze up. I denied it. I didn't want to, you know, cause any distractions for me for the rest of the event. I was kind of caught off guard with it all.
SIMON: You of course had a famous rivalry that persisted for years with Andre Agassi. And there you were both the sons of immigrants, but you were often kind of cast in different roles, weren't you? Was that all for the press invention or were you in fact different from each other?
Mr. SAMPRAS: Yeah, I think we were pretty different. I mean Andre was a little more flamboyant, outgoing; I was a little more introverted. And from our games to our personality to our attire, but in the mid-'90s we're one and two in the world playing in major tournaments and he - obviously he was a great player and he's still a good friend today and as much as we were different, we got along pretty well.
SIMON: Is it hard to be friends on the tour?
Mr. SAMPRAS: Very hard, and it's an intimate sport. It's not like golf where they're really - they're competing against the golf course. You know, when I look across the net, I see a Boris, I see an Andre, I see a Courier, and so it's hard to really - to have those moments and then, you know, two days later go out to dinner or go play golf. I mean we all handled pretty well, but tennis is like boxing. You know, there aren't too many boxers that are good friends, so everyone sort of was to themselves and kept it pretty tight with their own entraigues.
SIMON: Let me, if I may, ask you about the parting of the ways and finally what happened to Pete Fisher, this man who - in your own account you owe a great deal to.
Mr. SAMPRAS: Yes, yeah, I mean it was sort of a tricky time. I had just turned pro and Pete wanted to be involved in my tennis. He's very aggressive with sort of, you know, doing a contract. He wanted 50% of my winner's check. He wanted a Testarossa if I won all the grand slams in one year. I mean it was pretty farfetched and that's when my dad got involved and it got to be uncomfortable. Pete was a good friend of the family's and he didn't want to travel. He was a doctor and I feel like I needed some help on the road and so one thing led to another and we kind of went our separate ways there for while. And we still kept in contact and then obviously, you know, he went through his own personal issues and…
SIMON: Well, I mean we should explain. They're more than personal issues, they were legal issues.
Mr. SAMPRAS: Yeah, the legal issues, he was accused of molesting kids and - it was in the middle of my career and I was off doing my own thing and…
SIMON: I - I mean I have to ask since we opened up this can of worms, you never saw this side of him when he was working with you?
Mr. SAMPRAS: No. He was part of the family and looking back at it now, it was a little unusual. He would always sort of be at the club with - you know, teaching kids, and so you wonder, but you never thought it would be true, and I'm not sure if it is true. But he always…
SIMON: So he did take a plea?
Mr. SAMPRAS: He did take a plea. You know, and I remember him telling me that he'd rather take a plea now rather than serving eight years.
SIMON: Mr. Sampras, why did you retire?
Mr. SAMPRAS: Well, I had nothing left to - sort of left to prove to myself, you know, after breaking the record of grand slams, I was pretty young at the time and it kind of leaves your body. And when it does, it's time for me to move on.
SIMON: And how are you feeling? Does playing at that level take a toll even years later?
Mr. SAMPRAS: I feel great. You know, I'm still playing a little tennis even today and it's still fun for me.
SIMON: Mr. Sampras, pleasure talking to you, thanks so much.
Mr. SAMPRAS: Nice talking to you.
SIMON: Pete Sampras, his new book, written with Tennis Magazine columnist Peter Bodo is Pete Sampras: A Champion's Mind: Lessons From a Life in Tennis.
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