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A Tale of 2 Courts

A wide gulf separates the Rolling Hills Estates club where Pete Sampras trained, and the once-scruffy Compton park that produced the Williams sisters. But family support and personal drive made them all champions.

August 28, 2000|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The drive is a short one between these two places where tennis greatness began. And they are a world apart.

Start at the upscale Jack Kramer Club in Rolling Hills Estates, where Pete Sampras played much of his early tennis, and drive to the neighborhood where the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, hit their first back hands.

Go past the brilliant display of bougainvillea and oleander that line the road, past the horse stables and white slat fences at the beginning of the descent. Near the bottom of the hill, turn right and pass by a refinery, then go north toward a tougher world. Hang a right on a street that eventually becomes Compton Boulevard and stop at Atlantic Avenue. The park is there, a sliver of green surrounded by strip malls, grimy auto repair shops and tiny, stucco homes.

The tennis courts, refurbished now but once little more than cracked asphalt and tattered nets, are where the legend of the Williams sisters began.

In all, the drive from the Kramer Club to East Rancho Dominguez Park--where the reigning men's and women's Wimbledon champions grew up--is a scant 15 miles, much less as the crow flies.

Yet the road that Sampras and the Williams sisters followed to the $15-million U.S. Open tennis championships that begin today in New York could not have been more different.

Sampras, arguably the best player to ever pick up a racquet, grew up in Rancho Palos Verdes--the top of the hill, literally and figuratively, a community rich in tennis culture and tennis stars. The early years for Wimbledon winner Venus and last year's U.S Open winner Serena, were at the bottom, on mean streets where gang warfare was an inescapable part of the landscape, where gunshots were often the background noise of the night.

In 1990, just as the Williamses began appearing on the tennis radar screen and Sampras was winning his first U.S. Open at 19, there were 78 murders in Compton and none in Rancho Palos Verdes. Other crime statistics for Compton that year were as gloomy as they were predictable. In Rancho Palos Verdes, a gunshot was big news.

Yet different as the backdrops were, there is an intertwining of the two worlds: Growing up, the Williams sisters looked to Sampras as a role model, admiring a rocket serve they now can almost equal. They have geography in common as well. Both Sampras and the Williamses moved off to Florida, although Sampras is now back, close to the rest of his clan. And both came from homes where the work ethic and family were always first.

Never mind that the Williams patriarch, Richard, seems at times both quirky and overbearing, especially when compared with the reticent Sampras family. (After years of shunning the limelight, Sampras' father and mother finally watched in person this year as their son won Wimbledon.) The underpinnings of stability were there in both worlds.

*

In chronological order, the Sampras story comes first. Start with the parents, Soterios (Sam) and Georgia--he a Chicago-bred engineer, she a former beautician, one of 10 children born in a Greek village near Sparta. She came to the United States in 1960, and they met when Sam saw her in a Washington hotel where she was working.

By then, Sam was working as an engineer for the U.S. government, as he would be for the rest of his career. But that was only his day job.

"He worked a full-time job until 5 in the afternoon," says the eldest of the Sampras children, Gus. "Then at night he was a partner in a restaurant with his brothers-in-law."

At home in Potomac, Md., the brood began to grow: first Gus, then Stella, then Pete, then Marion. In 1978, when Pete was 7, Sam Sampras was transferred to California as a civilian project manager for the Titan missile program at the U.S. Air Force Space Division in El Segundo. They arrived in a Ford Pinto, the six family members and a parrot named Jose shoe-horned into the car. With his bank account more flush than usual because he had sold his share of the restaurant, Sam Sampras bought a home in Rancho Palos Verdes. At the time, the now-pricey Palos Verdes Peninsula was where many middle-class aerospace workers settled.

"The peninsula was built on aerospace--a lot of engineers and corporate people, but by no means the presidents of their companies," said longtime area Realtor Gary Marler. "These days, those kinds of people can't afford to move up here. My parents moved here in 1963 and they bought a house for $40,000. They sold it for $550,000 last year."

Neither Sam nor Georgia Sampras played tennis, but their kids liked the game. Not long after the move to California came that storied moment when Sam had all four children playing on public courts in Torrance. Two lawyers watching them play told Sam that Pete was good enough even then to warrant professional coaching.

Sam hesitated, then decided the lawyers' free advice might have merit. So he turned his son over to the pros. In the South Bay, they weren't hard to find.

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