I just finished A Champion’s Mind, Pete Sampras’ excellent autobiography, written with Tennis magazine’s Peter Bodo.
I didn’t follow Sampras closely in his prime. I witnessed some of the highlights–his record-breaking 13th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2000, his 14th Grand Slam title and triumphant exit from professional tennis at the U.S. Open in 2002–but I wasn’t familiar with much of his career. I knew nothing about his development as a junior.
Two interesting discoveries about the early years: the free-wheeling, entrepreneurial approach to Sampras’ development and Pete’s sensitivity to the financial sacrifice made by his family.
These days, the conventional wisdom suggests that champions are bred in academies, where stroke doctors, trainers, and tacticians create a systematic plan to maximize a young player’s talents. In fact, the United States Tennis Association is now experimenting with this corporate approach. The USTA has established an all-expenses-paid academy for promising U.S. juniors, inspired by the success of similar programs in France and Spain, and spooked by the dwindling number of top-tier U.S. players.
Sampras followed a different path. He learned the game under the guidance of an eccentric pediatrician, Pete Fischer. Fischer played shaky rec-level tennis at best, but he was an inspired entrepreneur, developing tennis talent instead of companies.
Fischer sent Sampras to experts to develop his strokes. In one scene, Sampras is contracting with a local college coach to learn the volley. In another, he’s practicing footwork in a trailer park. The most conventional part of Sampras’ development was lessons with groundstroke guru Robert Landsdorp, who has worked with a number of champions, most recently, Maria Sharapova. “Robert flat-out thought Pete was a quack,” Sampras writes.
Compared with the academy approach, the Sampras’ plan was largely improvised, stitched together by a loose-knit group of freelance tennis nuts sprinkled across the Los Angeles sprawl.
Sampras is surprisingly sensitive to his family’s financial sacrifice: “When I think about my development days, I have a vivid memory of my dad having to go to the ATM to take out sixty bucks or whatever it was at the time, and giving it to me so I could pay Robert Landsdorp. Cha-ching, cha-ching. There were lots of visits to the cash machine.”
This awareness is consistent with the entrepreneurial approach to creating a champion. Does a young Frenchmen in a state-funded program, or a teen on scholarship at Bolletieri’s, feel the same sense of responsibility to his investors?
This awareness can be a double-edged sword, of course. Maybe it gave Sampras a little more motivation to make the most of his gifts. And, obviously, the family’s investments turned out to be incredibly successful. Pete’s sister got a college scholarship. Pete achieved world domination.
It’s almost a cliché, however, that precocious talents can crack under the pressure of expectations, especially when they feel the financial weight. Rather than A Champion’s Mind, their autobiographies can just as easily become Fear Strikes Out, with Jimmy Piersall howling at his father from the baseball diamond as his mind shatters into pieces.