fawny.org: Pete Sampras, Sexual Persona

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Pete Sampras, sexual persona

The young whippersnapper of a tennis star is, I think, growing up before our very eyes, and unlike Sinéad O'Connor, he doesn't need to shave his head or tear up a photograph to get our attention. He's slowly growing into a sexual persona, to use the camillepagliaism.

We are always so worried about how things look, but Sampras has the unaffected sex appeal, charisma, and nonchalance that only heterosexuals can pull off. Like when he pulls off his shirt and throws it to the crowd, which he does at least a couple of times a month in the sweaty summer tennis season. Or when he fends off criticism of his live-in girlfriend, nearly a decade older than him, after accusations of opportunism and golddigging. (It's love. You got a problem with that?)

Or when he poses in an advertisement for milk (not benefitting the cows any) shirtless and with a sheet draped over his head, as though he was letting us get a good look at him all secret-like because we finally got up the nerve to ask, and grinning (under a milk moustache) to show us he don't give a fuck.

Or his appearance on the cover of the July 14, 1997 Sports Illustrated, shot in mid-air, his shirt rising up and glued to his shoulders, legs curled and any tennis racket almost completely invisible. This photo gives meaning to the saying, held dear only by people who look bad naked, that clothing can reveal more than nudity. (A woman wrote in to say "The photo... captures everything that is exciting about him-- his remarkable athletic skill and grace, stunning good looks and a perfect body that doesn't have an arrogant bone in it." But the little girls understand.)

The current passel of Nike commercials shows the kid ("a 25-year-old kid," Sampras's voice-over tells us) quite shirtless, quite unabashed, and really quite unlike some other sports dreamboats we could name, the loudmouths and showoffs and blond quarterbacks and bodybuilder sprinter types. The swimmer's builds. The X-ray musculatures with the bodyfat of a hungry reebok. At rest, Pete's only discernible muscle tone is in his back. Sampras kicks sand in the face of Joe Weider.

This is an unlikely hero for a country which, despite centuries of multiculturalism, still likes its athletes in only two flavours: vanilla and chocolate. He's compact, Greek, and hairy, but strong, clean-cut, and... foul-mouthed. The New York Times Magazine cover story on Sampras and Agassi two years ago found gentlemanly Sampras dropping F-words all over the place (even when pulling himself Hockney-style out of the pool) while piggish Agassi, a born-again Christian, drove quietly around Las Vegas in his customized lowrider van.

And yes, he cried when his coach was dying in hospital and he minded his manners accepting a bouquet from Elton John, but the whole point is that Pete Sampras doesn't have to think twice about anything-- other than tennis. There's action and reaction, not action, introspection, neurosis, compensation, and action.

Maybe 20 years from now gay kids, sporty gay kids, are going to grow up feeling this natural and unexamined, but right now that land is populated only by the straight guys, and they're having a whale of a time-- slapping each other on the back, rotating baseball caps so the adjusto-strap creates its own tanline on the forehead, and just not bothering with swimming trunks because we're all guys here, right? And we are pretty much stuck peering out at that distant shore through binoculars from the verandas of our exclusive beachfront dreamhomes. Sometimes I wonder if all our role models have to be gay.