Luckily for Pete Sampras, he realized early in his career that his opponent wasn’t beating him. Sampras was beating himself.
After a U.S. Open loss to Stefan Edberg in 1992, here’s what Sampras told the press: “I was running out of gas. I was very, very tired, maybe more mentally than physically. Mentally, I was telling myself that my body just couldn’t do it, and as a result, it didn’t.”
It wasn’t just that he’d played badly, Sampras says now. “I also played without heart, which is a greater sin.”
As the season wore on, Sampras kept thinking about that loss to Edberg. He says he wondered, If he didn’t play that well, and I didn’t play that well, why did he win? Finally, the answer came: I lost because I had packed it in.
Twice that year he quit while he still had some gas in the tank. If he didn’t care, who would? He’d wasted two moments that might never come again.
Sampras reminded himself that it no longer was a matter of becoming good enough to win. “I was there; I was plenty good. … The real question was did I want to win?”
By the end of 1992, Sampras says, “I was determined to have a huge 1993.”
It was pretty much all upward from there. In Moscow for the Davis Cup, Sampras beat Andrei Chesnokov on his own turf, after the Russian decided to let the young American set the pace, hoping that Sampras might screw up or wear out.
From there, Sampras went on to rank No. 1 in tennis for 286 consecutive weeks and rack up 14 Grand Slam titles.
Later in his career, Sampras, while always cool-headed, saw reality with rare objectivity. He lists these truisms as mostly fair and all realistic:
1. You’re only as good as your last win.
2. People often love what you do, while you can do it, but there’s nothing personal in their admiration.
3. Many are interested in you because of what you might do for them.
4. You may accomplish special things but you’re nothing special.
5. Nobody gets a free ride based on past performance.
— Adapted from A Champion’s Mind, Pete Sampras with Peter Bodo, Crown Publishers. 2008 photo by Craig ONeal, courtesy Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.