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September 2008

Pete Sampras and the family tennis dynasty

He was the most overpowering tennis player of his generation and perhaps of all time.

Unlike his fiery predecessors, such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, he worked with the quiet efficiency that made his wins seem inevitable and almost “boring.”

“Sampras is boring—and a menace to the game with his domination,” says Pete Sampras, who won a record 14 Grand Slam single titles and had seven Wimbledon and five U.S. open wins in a storied 15-year career. “I stood accused of playing brilliant tennis that won minds, but not hearts. After one of my matches a tabloid ran the simple headline SAMPRAZZZZZZZ.”

But, he says, “I had been raised to believe that winning matches is what counted, and that you didn’t make a fuss or draw attention to yourself as you went about the job.”

It was a stoicism that he says all Sampras men have and he inherited from his father Sam, a mechanical engineer for the Defense Department who later moved his family to California to find work and perhaps also take in the sun that reminded him of Greece.

My father “isn’t a hugger, and he’s not a big communicator,” says his son in his recent autobiography, A Champion’s Mind, Lessons from a Life in Tennis (Crown Publishers). “Like most of the Sampras men, including (my brother) Gus and me, he’s reserved…It’s not an ideal temperament for dealing with the nature of the pro tennis tour, where you’re constantly moving, meeting new people, making chitchat, and trying to remember names. On the other hand, our natural shyness and reticence makes it easier to stay above the fray and avoid getting sucked into distractions. That’s a huge asset once you become a top tennis player.”

In fact, Sampras almost didn’t become a tennis player because his family knew nothing of the game. His mother Georgia (“the nurturer in our family”) had been born and raised in Salacia in Sparta. His father was working two jobs (like all Greeks, he inevitably opened a restaurant in Virginia when the family lived on the East Coast) and had four children to support (Gus, Stella, Pete and Marion).

“Dad knew nothing about tennis, so he had no aspirations for me until I displayed interest in the game. He was also utterly unfamiliar with the tennis scene, which is insular and mostly made up of people whose families have been involved in the game for multiple generations.”

His family, says Sampras, “was just like that movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Mom still cooks traditional Greek dishes like spanakopita and dolmades, and I’ve heard more than my share of bouzouki music…We attended Greek Orthodox church every week, and we went to all kinds of Greek festivals and outings.”

As a boy, Sampras did pick up an old tennis racket one day and whack the ball against the cement wall of the nearby Laundromat. And he did take some lessons at a local public court, where somebody walked up to his father and told him, “Your son—he looks like he can really play tennis.”

“I think Dad took that to heart,” says Sampras, “even though he wasn’t a huge sports fan and we had no real tennis tradition in the family. We were Greek Americans, firmly connected to our roots in many ways. Some small nations in the Western world, like Croatia and Sweden, have a rich tennis tradition. But Greece isn’t one of them.”

Then when Sampras was seven his father transferred to Los Angeles, the epicenter of U.S. tennis culture and where the climate made tennis “a year-round, outdoor game that anyone could play with limited resources and there were no socially intimidating overtones.”

The Jack Kramer Club, instrumental in developing players like Tracy Austin, was nearby in Rolling Hills, and there was West End, where Sampras began taking lessons from celebrated coach Robert Lansdorp.

“I was a shy, introverted kid, but if you ‘took” from Lansdorp, you were right in the thick of things and a lot of people checked you out. It seems weird now, but we were told shortly after I started working on my game that I was going to be a great tennis player.”

And his father ran into pediatrician from New York who was to become his first major tennis mentor and coach, Peter Fischer.

“Fischer looked at me and saw some kind of supernatural talent, so he befriended my dad, who would take me to and from lessons, and ultimately convinced Dad to allow him to become my coach.

“I didn’t see much of my dad as a child, because he worked two jobs—he was all about supporting the family while my mother took care of us, physically and emotionally. But as I got deeply involved in tennis, the game became a way to spend time with my dad. He would take me to and from tennis lessons after work, or to junior tournaments on weekends. But even then, it wasn’t like my father and I talked a lot. My confidant was my sister Stella; she was a little older, so I looked up to her, and she was the only other serious player in the family.”

Stella is now the longstanding tennis coach of the women’s team at UCLA and was only eight when the family moved to California and she began to compete with her younger brother.

"Oh, yeah, we competed against each other all the time," she remembers. "Neither one of us wanted to lose. We had some wars."

Marion also played (Gus was a surfer) and Sampras says “she was pretty good at it. But as the youngest child, she was slightly overshadowed…If our parents played favorites with Stella and me, it wasn’t because they loved us more—it was because of tennis…In some ways, we were an All-American family; in other ways, we were anything but. And we are very close to this day.”

As the training intensified, Sampras had “a vivid memory of my dad having to go to the ATM to take out sixty bucks, or whatever it was at the time, and giving it to me so I could pay Robert Landsdorp…Cha-ching; cha-ching. There were lots of visits to the cash machine.”

And very little time to be a kid. “In the morning, I would go to Vista Grande Elementary at eight and stay until noon. I would eat lunch, change, and head over to the Kramer Club at three, where I would play a set or two with whoever was scheduled that day…Two days a week there was tennis camp at the club, and some days—more often, as time went on—I had a lesson. My day ended around 7 P.M., when I would have dinner back home, do homework, go to sleep, and wake up—only to do the whole thing again.”

“Knowing what my life was like,” he says, “and how withdrawn I was, you could easily cast me as some kind of tennis robot. I don’t think that’s accurate, because I truly loved what I was doing…I mean, it wasn’t my dad telling me I had to go and play, it was (my coach Fischer) encouraging me to keep at it. Dad took a more hands-off approach. He let Pete run the show. I can’t remember a singe occasion when my father came down on me for not wanting to practice.”

At the same time, he says, “I knew we were putting a lot of money into my development. I knew from our family dynamics that I was getting the lion’s share of attention. The entire family was there for me, doing things like driving for six hours so I could play the Fiesta Bowl junior tournament. I saw my father, who never uttered a word of complaint, playing that ATM like it was a slot machine, day after day, to finance my training.”

The payoff, or course, was that the family created a champion for the ages and with three players in the family has become a tennis dynasty of sorts. And though their son says his parents always stayed out of the limelight, they were at Wimbledon in 2000 when he broke the Grand Slam record, and at the urging of his coach, he dropped his usual reserve and climbed into the stands to hug them.

“The paparazzi got a picture of me hugging my dad. The image was printed far and wide, and it became well known. The following morning, Dad phoned from his hotel in central London and, sounding kind of amazed, told me that all kinds of people in the street recognized him—Sam Sampras!—and congratulated him.”

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