Pete Sampras bombs a 125-mph serve down the T of the stadium court at the Los Angeles Tennis Center at UCLA. Almost instantaneously, there's a rifle shot of return fire, and the ball rockets back over the net and hurtles past him. As he straightens up, Sampras peers out from beneath weighty eyebrows with a quizzical look that's clearly asking, "Where the hell did that come from?"
On the other side of the court, Cecil Mamiit twirls his racket like a B-movie Western gunslinger. Sampras returns to the baseline and cranks up another heater. This time, Mamiit scorches a forehand return at Sampras' feet. Sampras does a little hop-step, and the ball clangs off the frame of his racket. As he watches the ball dribble off the court, Sampras shakes his head with thinly disguised frustration. Sure, this is just a practice match three days before the Mercedes-Benz Cup in July, the first event in a hard-court season that culminates in the U.S. Open finals next weekend. But Sampras is arguably the greatest player in the history of men's tennis, while Mamiit is ... well, who exactly is Cecil Mamiit again?
According to the Assn. of Tennis Professionals, the man facing Sampras this July day is the 113rd-best player in the world, ranked ninth in the United States. He started when he was 6 on the public courts of Glassell Park, and with little fanfare or financial support, he has worked his way to the top of the junior ranks. Five years ago, playing for USC, he became the first freshman since John McEnroe to win the NCAA singles championship. Since turning pro in 1996, he has amassed more than half a million dollars in prize money. Pretty impressive, huh? So how come nobody but the most obsessive tennis fanatics could pick him out of a police lineup?
Mamiit is a member of the vast and largely faceless underclass of men's tennis professionals who form the foundation of the pyramid that peaks in Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Superbly conditioned, prodigiously talented and, for the most part, sadly interchangeable in the eyes of the general public, Mamiit and others like him serve as first-round fodder and practice partners for the bigger names and more familiar faces favored by TV producers and advertising agencies. It's not a bad life; far from it. Even Mamiit, at 113 in the world, stands to clear $100,000 this year. But the money hardly seems commensurate with the effort, skill and training he brings to the court.
It's easy to dismiss athletes such as Mamiit as losers, because let's face it: Losing early and often comes with the territory, and fans aren't in the habit of cavorting in conga lines while chanting, "We're Number 113!" Then again, consider how much the 113th-best baseball player earns. The 113th-best CEO. The 113th-best attorney. The 113th-best physicist in the world is probably a genius. And as Mamiit spars with Sampras, it's clear that the 113th-best tennis player isn't chopped liver.
Even though Mamiit is only 5 foot 8, he's got a big-time forehand, a reliable two-handed backhand and world-class wheels. Light on his feet and solid off the ground, he has no trouble hanging with Sampras. Yes, Sampras serves harder; he serves harder than just about anybody who has ever played the game. And this is practice, not the finals at Wimbledon. But today, at least, it's tough to tell the artist from the artisan.
"From a technical standpoint, there's no real difference between [numbers] 50 and 150 in the world," says Scott McCain, the United States Tennis Assn. touring coach who works with Mamiit and a few other young American pros. "The difference could be one good tournament. It could be six or seven wins over the course of the year. It could be a couple of points here and there. Against a guy like Pete, who's got such a great serve, a two-point swing can mean a set. He can be four points better than you, and you lose the match 6-4, 6-4. Four points! That's all it takes."
The practice session ends. "Thanks, Cece," Sampras says, casually toweling off like a heavyweight champion after going a few rounds in the gym. Mamiit packs up and slips unnoticed into the stands for a post-mortem with McCain. The sparse crowd applauds as Sampras strolls off the court. His personal coach carries his tennis bag to the locker room while the legend pauses to sign autographs.
Four points--that's all there is between them. Four points and $41 million in prize money.
Mamiit sits down in his kitchen and attacks a small breakfast plate overflowing with a melange of eggs, steamed rice and Filipino sausages. "My mother made it for me before she left for work," he says, smiling sheepishly. "I don't think the sausages are very good for you. But I can't resist them when I'm at home." To be safe, he sucks down a fistful of vitamin and other dietary supplements.