Float Like a Butterfly, Serve Like a Bazooka: Laid-Back Pete Sampras Blasts His Way into Tennis History

updated 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In a small, one-bedroom condo on Amelia Island, a posh resort off the northeastern coast of Florida, Pete Sampras grabs a golf club and takes some practice swings. The olive-skinned 19-year-old appears skinnier and gawkier than he did two days before, when he demolished Andre Agassi in the men's final of the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadow, N.Y. Sampras is describing the phone call he made to his parents in exclusive Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., after walking off the stadium court. This was before they got around to changing their phone number, before their answering machine broke. "They were more stunned than anything," says Sampras. "They said, 'Congratulations, you worked hard and you deserve it. Now enjoy the next couple of weeks and then get back to work.' "

That sense of dedication instilled by his parents quietly created tennis's newest star. With a seismic-quality serve clocked at 120 mph and an unflinching calm at the net, Sampras dispatched Ivan Lendl in the quarters, John McEnroe in the semis and took the Day-Glo out of Agassi, winning 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 to become the youngest men's champion in the Open's 110-year history.

While Agassi represents the brash, cocksure new breed of young players, Sampras is a throwback to the 1960s, when elegant serve-and-volleyers like Australia's Rod Laver and Ken Rose-wall dominated the game. "I've always looked up to people like Laver, and I changed my game to play like those guys," says Sampras, whose ranking has gone from 81st to sixth in less than a year.

Sampras also absorbed some of the personal reserve of the earlier era's players. "He looks like he grew up playing with a wooden racket," says Mary Carillo, a CBS tennis analyst. "You can tell his values are steeped in the past. He's anti-entourage; he wears whites on the court. People say, 'Where did this guy come from?' He came from the '60s, that's where." Even Sampras' taste in music is anachronistic: He prefers the mellower tones of Cat Stevens and the Eagles to the hipper trends of rap or heavy metal.

But Pete's greatest source of inspiration comes from his Greek-American family. His brother, Gus, 22, is often the only person who travels with him and, as his financial adviser, must now think about prudently investing Sampras' $1 million earnings and any subsequent endorsement money. His parents, Soterios, 53, an engineer for the Defense Department, and Georgia, a housewife, encouraged Pete through the long years of junior tennis in California but now find it too nerve-racking to watch him play. (They went to Presumed Innocent during Pete's semifinal win over John McEnroe and cruised a Long Beach shopping mall during the finals.) Sampras' older sister, Stella, 21, plays for the UCLA varsity tennis team and plans to turn pro. and his younger sister, Marion, 16, swings a racket for Palos Verdes High.

Sampras is a self-conscious young man with a quick, booming laugh. A high school dropout—he turned pro after his junior year—Pete has no girlfriend and is shy to a fault, maybe even a double fault. "He's quiet almost to the point of dull," says ex-coach Dr. Peter Fischer. But all that may change now that Sampras has been thrust into the limelight.

It didn't take long for the Open triumph to transform other aspects of Sampras' life. On Sunday night, according to agent Ivan Blumberg, Pete was so excited he "didn't sleep a minute, not a minute." Perhaps it's just as well, considering how early he would have had to get up to do all three network morning news shows. By noon he was on a plane for Florida, where he was due to play an exhibition.

Two days after his victory, the new champion is planning to relax and work on his golf game. (He is a 16-handicapper.) He knows his win at the Open makes him the man to beat now. "It's a lot of pressure, but I think I'm mature enough and capable of living up to that responsibility," Pete says with aplomb. Meanwhile, he's going to indulge in a little old-fashioned glory-basking. "I'm just going to try to let this sink in." says Sampras, taking a smooth swing with his sand wedge. "I'm on a high right now."

Andrew Abrahams, Cindy Dampier on Amelia Island, Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles

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