Saturday, June 14, 2008

Book Review: "A Champion's Mind"

In typical understated Pete Sampras fashion, an autobiography about one of the all-time greats hit the shelves on June 10th, and I just finished reading it. I must say, it is a perfect mirror of the man's career; unclear and skeletal at first, then more robust and engaging, then a deep frankness and revealing honesty towards the end.
The way that I even found out about this book was quintessentially Sampras: low profile, minimal publicity, then BOOM, there it was on my Amazon recommended list. Anyway, this was a wonderful find, as I was 14 years old when Sampras became a household name after winning the 1990 US Open, and I actively followed his career from then on. Going back through those tennis events and memories through his eyes was a wonderful and illuminating adventure.
The book actually starts off slowly insofar as the events are laid out along a discrete timeline, but there is little commentary or analysis about them, including his US Open breakthrough in 1990. He admits that early on in his career he was immature about, and lacked insight into what was going on around him, and the paucity of insight in the first few chapters of the book really reflects that. As he matures as a person, along an arc clearly delayed by his devotion to and sacrifices for tennis, his analysis about his career ripens and sharpens.
The first glimmers of this are in his wonderful insight into his relationship with Tim Gullikson, and the way his death affected him. This carries into the famous match against Jim Courier when Sampras began to weep on court. Without spoiling the surprise, I was stunned at Sampras' reaction to Courier's comments on the court during the match.
His commitment to the game, his competitive drive, and what he terms "the Gift" really come forth in the chapter about his famous 1996 match against Alex Corretja at the US Open. His discussion about that gripping 5th set, which I remember watching live, is totally engrossing. I went straight to my computer to find a youtube clip to relive it (for your ease, here is a link. It's in two parts, and the commentary's in French, but who cares?)
Sampras' growing sense of self and his awareness of the size and import of his career really launch the final 1/3 of the book into a special place. He dissects his pursuit of the all-time Grand Slam record as well as his quest to finish number one in the world for a record 6 straight years. Sadly, this last feat is one that fell on deaf ears in the US, for as he describes being doggedly pursued by the world press, no American beat writer followed him on his epic chase around the world (thanks a bunch, Sports Illustrated!). He also devotes a great deal of attention to his biggest rivals, primarily Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisovic, and of course, Andre Agassi. His insights into their matches and relationship are just gripping, and left me wanting so much more. Thankfully Agassi's autobiography isn't far away.
We see more than just his tennis; however, as Sampras takes us into his emotions and values in a way he consciously chose not to do during his career. He voices fear, happiness, frustration, and anger in ways that have humanized him for me in a wonderful way. He candidly discussed Sally Jenkins' writing about him sleeping alone in a dark room, the imprisonment for child molestation of Pete Fischer, one of his first advisors, and the clumsy and ultimately reversed firing of his second coach Paul Annacone. He also gives an upfront analysis of his decision to retire and his final US Open in 2002.
Paired nicely with this insight are lots of wonderful vignettes, moments, and anecdotes that were entirely new to me and very entertaining. I choose not to divulge them here, and you can thank me later once you've enjoyed them for yourself.
Along with his growth as player and man, another theme that is evident throughout the book is Sampras' slavish devotion to his craft. Honestly the man puts the "ace" in ascetic (terrible pun, I know, but just too tasty to pass up!) From minimizing his high school exposures (he was known as "the tennis guy"), to rigorously following a dietary regimen, even when his body was calling out for something else, to moving to Tampa to be away from the "distraction" of family, the man was an absolute monk. He even slept in a separate bed from his new wife at Wimbledon when she was pregnant because it was a queen size, not a king!
(Interesting sidenote about his body craving different foods than what he usually ate: Sampras suffers from a condition called Beta-thalassemia, which is commonly found in people of Mediterranean descent and, because it affects a person's ability to form normal hemoglobin molecules, causes a mild anemia. When people become anemic, most frequently in anemias due to nutritional deficiencies (ie iron deficiency) they can manifest a symptom called "pica" wherein they crave large quantities of non-nutritive substances or food ingredients. When I read about Sampras' cravings for fatty foods at the 1996 French Open, this phenomenon came to mind. Anyway, now that we've finished Hematology Grand Rounds, we'll conclude this sidenote.)
His sacrifices are a perfect illustration of what it takes to get to and stay at the top, and he speaks on film about this same process in the movie "Unstrung". There is a clear acknowledgment that he missed out on a great deal, but he derives that much more satisfaction from his achievements. He also clearly seems to be relishing the more normal life that he leads now.
It is easy to see how such a career path is not for anyone but a chosen few, and then even those few still have to make a choice of their own. An interesting juxtaposition to the road Sampras walked is Mark Philippoussis, who was widely regarded as having the biggest and best all-around tennis game in the world, but focused more on the trappings of tennis fame than tennis itself (who will soon forget his turn on NBC's "Age of Love" reality show).
Pete Sampras had an amazing career, not just for the sheer magnitude of his achievements, but also for the removed and sometimes obfuscating personality he showed us during his time in the limelight. This book closes the gap between Sampras the tennis player and Sampras the person for us, his fans. By doing this with as much candor and frankness as are in these pages, we meet an entirely new person. By pouring in so many magical tennis adventures and anecdotes, we get to relive an unbelievable career all over again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice review. Just finished the book myself. Sampras comes across as a very confident man. I've read the biographies of Boris Becker and John McEnroe too, and there is a pattern: All of them have plenty of excuses for their mot important losses. Sampras clearly does not want to say flat out that he got outplayed in some of his big matches. Instead he is the wrong man for the job (Davis Cup final 1991), is not fully fit to play (US Open 1992), does not like the scheduling and has eaten the wrong food or too little (French Open 1996) or he does not like the tournament in general (Australian Open). Come on, Pete.