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Turn the TV on to one of the cable sports channels anytime and there's a pretty good chance you'll see two or four powerfully built young people grunting and yelling as they smash a rubber ball across a net. Such is the modern style of tennis, once the genteel afternoon pastime of the idle rich.
Lawn tennis, to give the sport its full title, developed from real tennis, an indoor game that dates back to twelfth or thirteenth-century France, when balls were hit with the palm of the hand. Rackets weren't developed until the sixteenth century, when the game became popular among aristocrats and was played in a walled court.
The game's French origins also account for some of its unique terminology. "Love," for instance, representing a zero score, is thought to have derived from l'oeuf, which is French for "egg," while "deuce," similar to the French word for "two," refers to the situation in which two consecutive points are required to win a game.
Nowadays, tennis has evolved into a highly charged, tense encounter between dedicated professionals who more than likely acquired their hunger for success at a very tender age. The degree of commitment required to reach the heights is matched only by the tremendous financial rewards to those who make it into the top rankings.
Asked to name the top male player of recent years, most tennis fans would agree there is only one candidate. With the number of Grand Slam titles to his name at twelve and counting, Pete Sampras has more or less dominated the sport for the better part of a decade.
The son of Greek immigrants, Pete Sampras's first contact with tennis was hitting balls against the basement wall of his family home in Washington, D.C. After the family moved to sunny California when Sampras was seven, it became apparent that he was a tennis prodigy. His professional career began in 1988 when he was just sixteen, and within two years he had reached the top ten rankings and become the youngest winner of the U.S. Open ever.
The 1993 to '94 season was when Sampras acquired the nickname "Pistol Pete" after slamming down a thousand aces on his way to three Grand Slam titles in a row. Since then, his only setbacks have been the death of his coach and mentor Tim Gullikson and his continuing inability to come to grips with playing on clay. The French Open championship on the clay courts of Roland Garros is still the only Grand Slam title to have stayed beyond his grasp.
Whether or not Pistol Pete manages to break the clay court jinx in the twilight years of his playing career, one thing is certain: When he does finally decide to call it a day, his place among the great names of tennis is guaranteed.