Thursday, September 06, 2001

TENNIS AND GOLF sure have produced more than their share of instant classics in the past few years, and I just watched another -- Pete Sampras's all-tiebreaker, no-service-breaks defeat of Andre Agassi in the U.S. Open tennis quarterfinals. Some thoughts:

1. On the nature of fandom. There is no harsher critic than the fanatic. My wife and I, whose Agassi loyalties were among the things that brought us together, must have shouted "Andre, you idiot!" at the TV several dozen times between us. "Oh, now he'll double-fault" was another popular refrain. I've been missing some of the U.S. Open action because my deadline is approaching on a review of a book I love. I'm not at liberty to disclose the identity of that book before the review is published, but I will say that I'm no easier on this beloved volume than I was tonight on Agassi. In my honesty, in fact, I'm likely to alienate a fellow writer whom I've long admired and wanted to meet. We humans expect a lot from our objects of admiration.

2. On Sampras the man vs. Agassi the man. The book on these guys is that Sampras is the quiet, humble, soft-spoken, classy dude to Agassi's brash, flashy, Las Vegas persona. Sampras, supposedly, is in the tradition of Laver and Rosewall; Agassi, supposedly, is in the tradition of Connors and McEnroe.

There was a time when Sampras could claim the high ground. The young "Image Is Everything" Agassi pulled some stunts that made him a hard guy to defend. But now that both are thirtysomething and married, ahem, at least once, I see a complex if polarizing Agassi vs. a Sampras who is widely misunderstood -- in the Chauncey Gardiner sense.

Sampras, it seems to me, is quiet not because he's such a classy, let-my-racket-do-the-talking athlete, but because he's a dumb jock with basically nothing to say. OK, "dumb jock" is a little rough. Pete is articulate enough to place him in the top quarter of so among athletes. But the nice-nice talk that he's been able to produce lately is obviously rehearsed. "Yes, I have to serve well against the best returner in the game," he says by way of praising Agassi. Both Sampras and Agassi deserve a certain amount of arrogance, but Pete is anything but "classy" when he entertains this impulse. After a 1998 loss to Patrick Rafter, Sampras was asked the difference between him and his conqueror. "Ten Grand Slams," he retorted. Sampras is known in the popular mythology as someone who never questions calls, but close observers will remember him asking an umpire "What are you smoking?"

There's an unbecoming crudeness to Pete Sampras. He got a lot of press earlier this year for inviting a Wimbledon ballboy to reach into his shorts to retrieve a ball, but I'm just as appalled at his routine ballkids-do-not-exist attitude. In tonight's match he forced ballkids to risk limb if not life as he displayed a studied fake obliviousness to any balls that might be in the way. The ballkids had to dodge his legs and racket to retrieve balls that Pete let sit just inches from his moving feet, unwilling to contribute the slightest help to, or even acknowledgment of, the retrieval chore.

It must be said that Agassi has his own issues with the ballkids. He's quite picky about where they stand and what they do with the balls, but at least he acknowledges their existence, and he's quite gentle with them as he makes his druthers known.

Agassi's "rock 'n' roll" image belies his old-lady musical tastes. He once appeared in a commercial with the Red Hot Chili Peppers while having no idea who they were; his favorites are Kenny G, Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow. I'm not sure whether Sampras has any musical favorites at all.

Even in their tennis strokes it's hard to reconcile the real Agassi and Sampras with the popular impression. Agassi once was known for hitting winners from improbable places, but now his style is physical and workmanlike. He hits hard, yes, but prefers to work his opponent into exhaustion. Is that more "flashy" than Sampras's style of ace after ace and "slam-dunk" overheads?

I'm not going to go too far out on a limb to defend Andre Agassi, and I'm not sure whether bizarre (Brooke Shields/Steffi Graf) or predictable (Generic Comely Hollywood Starlet) is a more honorable taste in wives, but I would invite you to listen closely to interviews of the two men and decide who sounds more genuine.

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