I just finished Pete Sampras’ A Champion’s Mind written with Peter Bodo. It may be a measure of my own inadequacies as a writer that my first inclination is to compare and contrast this book with Agassi’s Open, rather than deal with Sampras directly. Yet, these two athletes were so linked in my mind in the 90s that I continue to view one through the other’s prism. Be patient with me if I stray into comparison territory though A Champion’s Mind manages to hold its own, turning into a far more pleasing read than I would have imagined.
Though I’m currently enamored of Agassi due to his emotionally provocative and involving tale (and his mentoring of Verdasco!), during their heydays I was far more of a Sampras fan. Unlike those who dismissed Pete as boring, unemotional, and one-dimensional, I admired his reserve and his excellent execution of his game. I never needed my champions to bleed for me; I preferred effortless grace under fire. It’s partly this tendency that draws me to current players like Federer, Delpo, and Stan; these boys are usually cool under fire. As a matter of fact, my love affair with Stan began when he withstood pro-American fervor at Davis Cup and Indian Wells to win matches. I guess I’ve mellowed over the years and have begun to accept and even appreciate the hard working strivers on court who let you see them slay dragons through sweat and tears. Alas, I can see the appeal of Nadal, Verdasco, Tsonga, and Monfils. Still, it’s hard to get over my natural inclinations, so cool customers like Pete hold a special place in my heart and probably accounts for why I loved A Champion’s Mind.
A Champion’s Mind reads more instructive than confessional with Pete focusing mostly on the challenges that beset his rise and maintenance of a champion’s mindset throughout his career. If I may be so bold, Open details the challenges of a life, while Mind details the challenges of a vocation. I can easily imagine picking up Mind to get a richer understanding of the varying surfaces of the Slams (Australian, Wimbledon, French Open, and US Open) and strategies and techniques a player would need to succeed at each. Pete’s book is aptly named because it provides insight into the kind of thinking and reframing of experiences one would need to develop as an athlete and potentially an effective worker. Still Sampras doesn’t sacrifice his humanity by focusing mainly on his life in tennis, we do get a sense of the man: reticent, introverted, loyal, private, focused; a “still waters run deep” type of fellow, possibly blessed with few but very closely held friendships.
For Pete, his primary challenge was embracing his mantle which he does after a painful loss to Stefan Edberg in 1992 at the US Open:
“…I decided that I had this great talent and I wasn’t taking care of it. I had the Gift, and I was turning away from it…I realized that the game was not about getting somewhere, but staying somewhere. Some of us, we get there and we don’t want to let it go. We don’t want to see some other guy take it.”
Once Pete has this reckoning and accepts that for him the costs may be time away from his family, the lost of old friendships, and the failure to build new ones, his life becomes a striving to maintain this champion’s attitude for as long as the game and real life challenges would allow it. Real life challenges include the betrayal of an early mentor, the death of a friend as well as his longtime coach, and the doubters pushing for his early retirement. While Champion’s Mind didn’t prove as devastating to read as Open, it achieves its own impact in its quiet insistence that we can choose to navigate life’s murky waters with calm and coolness.