NEW YORK — The sound came from deep within Pete Sampras. It was a howling, yowling bellow of fear, of excitement, of desperate need, of astounding conviction.
Sampras had seen the tennis ball as it used to be, as larger than life, approaching slowly, so slowly. Sampras was able to line up his old friend, the one-handed backhand, plot a course for a return of Greg Rusedski's second serve, make the ball curve and spin under Rusedski's racket and then drop safely inside the line, a resounding winner on a crucial point in the third-set tiebreaker of a five-set, third-round victory Monday night at the U.S. Open.
Before the ball landed, Sampras shook the tin walls of the main stage here, Louis Armstrong Stadium, with a scream we've never heard from the stoic champion.
Sampras has vomited on this court, has wept in victory and in exhausted defeat, has held up trophies and stood stone-faced as the runner-up but never had he screamed like this, as if this single shot validated him, validated his refusal to retire as a 31-year-old winner of 13 Grand Slam titles, validated his inability to accept that the whispers he hears are true, that he is slower, weaker, less intimidating.
A little later the beaten opponent, Rusedski, said: "He's not playing great. I'd be surprised if he wins his next match against [Tommy] Haas. To be honest with you, I'd be very surprised."
But Sampras played great enough to beat Rusedski, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4, and advance to the fourth round. He played well enough to bring the wet, shivering fans to the point of chanting his name.
All around the grounds there were astounding matches, night matches everywhere after nearly two days of rain. But on every changeover, the Armstrong aisles would be crowded with fans scrambling up the wet steps. They'd heard the screams, the rumble of an epic percolating, and they wanted to see. Would Sampras, the great champion, walk away with his head buried in a towel, or his fists pumping in triumph?
For all his adult life, Sampras has defined himself by what he did with a racket and a ball at this court, at Wimbledon's Centre Court and at the big, covered stadium in Melbourne, Australia. For a decade, Sampras ruled with supreme confidence and a game both elegant and elemental.
"He's a step-and-a-half slow coming to the net," Rusedski said. "You can get the ball down. He's just not the same player. I mean, he's a great player from the past."
Sports are cruel and so are sportsmen, and that's what they say when a man such as Sampras hasn't won a title in more than two years.
Rusedski, once a U.S. Open finalist, tried to present his own resume as something special--"It's not like I haven't been to a U.S. Open finals, it's not like I haven't won 12 titles, it's not like I haven't beaten [Andre] Agassi, Sampras, [Andy] Roddick, players of that stature, it's not that I haven't been able to do it."
But Rusedski hasn't been able to do it when it matters, when the pressure is the greatest. Nobody has done it as often as Sampras, 13 times a winner in the finals of Grand Slams, and because of that Sampras has seemed puzzled that so many seem so eager to have him walk away from the game on someone else's terms, rather than his own.
Why is Sampras demeaning himself? That's what other players wonder quietly in the locker room. Why is he diminishing the memories, leaving us with the fresh impression of a balding, hunched-over, sad-eyed loser instead of the greatest player ever?
This is why:
"Let's go Pete. Let's go Pete. Let's go Pete."
It is what the people want. Pete winning one more Slam title.
It was that backhand service return winner, the one where Sampras just let go, just swung with his heart and the ball whipped by Rusedski. And it was the slam-dunk overheads, three of them, which made the crowd roar.
"The people and the atmosphere out on Louis was something I was enjoying," Sampras said. "Those are moments that as you get a little bit older, you kind of cherish a little bit more. The people were really, really pulling for me."
Sampras is slower. Rusedski is correct. Sampras arrives at the net too late sometimes to crack the angular, unhittable volleys that made him the king of Wimbledon. Rusedski also said Sampras offers up too many second serves, and that someone young and strong such as Haas will feast on those easy balls.
Those second serves still huddle in the corners of the service box or kick cruelly into the body of the receiver. They are not easy to return, and when Sampras finds his rhythm, and he can, then the rest of his game becomes smoother.
Haas, seeded No. 3, has beaten Sampras three consecutive times. It has been four years since Sampras beat the German. If Sampras loses today, what happened Monday will be forgotten by everyone except Sampras. He will hear, again, how he should quit, how he shouldn't return to this stage.
Yet Sampras will remember the cheers. He will still feel the passion from the stands, and his hand will still tingle from the feel of the two sparkling passing shots he hit in the final game Monday. And that's still enough for Sampras. For now.
Diane Pucin can be reached at email@example.com.
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Pete Sampras, seeded 17th this time, has advanced to at least the fourth round of the U.S. Open every year he has played in the tournament except 1988, the year he turned pro. A look:
Year Result19881st round1989 4th round1990 winner1991 quarterfinals1992 runner-up1993 winner1994 4th round1995 winner1996 winner1997 4th round1998 semifinals1999 did not play2000 runner-up2001 runner-up