An Interview with Tom Gullikson, August 10, 2002 (at the Tennis Masters Series – Cincinnati ATP Tour Event)
Vince Barr: You started out the year coaching Pete but after the Australian Open, he changed coaches. What happened? Was there a miscommunication as to how long you were going to be with him?
Tom Gullikson: Well, no. Pete called me about three weeks after Australia and basically said, "Tom, thanks for going down to Australia and everything but I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re too good of friends to really be player and coach. I’d just rather stay good friends." He just felt that at this point in his career, he really needed a coach who wasn’t his friend. So he wanted to kind of divorce the friendship part from the coaching relationship. So I said, "That’s fine. I don’t need to travel 30 weeks a year anyway and I’m happy to be your friend." So we parted as friends.
VB: Do you still talk to him on a regular basis?
TG: Not that much on a regular basis but he and Andy Roddick played an exhibition down in Dallas for the Tim & Tom Gullikson Foundation the Friday before LA. We sold out the house and I had a great chat with Pete down there. It was good to see him again after Wimbledon. They played a great match; Andy won 5-7, 6-3, 6-4. When they introduced Pete before the match, he got about a three-minute standing ovation. He really felt good about it. Hopefully, it will help get him going this summer.
VB: Tell us about your foundation. Samprasfanz has been one of the contributors to your organization.
TG: Our foundation is all about care and support. When Tim was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1995 he said, "Tom, I’m really lucky. I’ve got great family support, got friends virtually all over the world cheering for me. I’ve got the best doctors you could possibly have. But 80-90% of the people who get diagnosed with brain cancer don’t have the kind of support system I’ve got. So, I’d really like to start a foundation and focus on care and support for not only the brain tumor patient but the family." He saw what a dramatic effect it had on his two small kids and his wife and all his whole family. That’s what we’re about: care and support. We’ve raised over $2 Million since 1995 and we’ve given over $1 Million to care and support programs and we fund a college scholarship program every year for a very deserving brain cancer patient themselves or children of brain cancer patients. So, we do a lot of good things for very needy people.
VB: Is Pete done winning majors? His Wimbledon loss this year was rather shocking.
TG: Well, Pete had a pretty candid press conference down in Dallas at our foundation event. And he said some very interesting things. At the press conference, he said, "I’m in a position that I’ve never been in before. I’ve got to make a comeback." Now he’s 0-31 (as far as winning titles since Wimbledon 2000) and his ranking has dropped quite a bit. He’s in a position where he’s not the favorite anymore. After virtually dominating the men’s game for six straight years at # 1, winning 13 Slams. He really feels in his heart that he’s got one or two Grand Slams left in him. And he’s in a position now where he really has to make a comeback. He’s committed to it; he certainly wants to work for it. Whether he attains it or not that’s to be seen. He seemed to me very focused and very committed on trying to make a comeback. I think a comeback starts when you admit that you need to make one. And he did that.
VB: Several players have commented on Pete’s game recently. Todd Woodbridge said that he could read Pete’s serve better than he ever has, that it might have lost a little bit of its unpredictability. Agassi thought Pete’s foot speed was a bit slower. Have you noticed anything lacking from a technical standpoint in Pete’s game that might help explain his rut? Is it strategy? He’s always been a high risk, high reward-type of player, being real aggressive on his shots and things like that. What are your observations?
TG: Well, I think he needs to return better. That’s # 1. He needs to move a little better, I would agree with Andre there. I don’t think he’s moving quite as well and when you play a really aggressive, high-risk attacking game, you’ve got to be in great shape to cover that net because these guys all have great passing shots, great topspin lobs. They can run down your volleys and approach shots pretty well. To play the serve and volley, approach and volley game, you’ve got to be in great shape. So, movement is certainly one issue. And I would say returning serve a little bit better to get into more return games is an issue as well.
VB: What about the Canas match? Break that down for us, how does he match-up against him?
TG: All these matches in this masters series are pretty tough. Canas is playing pretty well. He’s in the semifinals this week in Toronto (before he won the title there). He can gain a lot of confidence from his result there (to use in his match against Pete); on the other hand, he might be tired from playing so many matches there and maybe Pete can jump on him if he’s a little bit tired from Canada. But he’s a young guy and he’s very fit. So, Pete needs to play an aggressive, dictating game and really take it to him. He’s not going to wear him down rallying from the back of the court. I think he just needs to play that aggressive game. Really dictate as much as he can.
VB: Serve and Volley?
TG: Absolutely. He’s got to play steady enough from the back but when he gets his chance, he’s got to take it, either by hitting the big forehand or hitting the approach and getting in.
VB: Yvgeny Kafelnikov thought that Pete should retire after he lost that grass court match with Alex Corretja in the Davis Cup quarterfinals earlier this year. Do you agree with Yvgeny’s assessment that Pete should retire because he was only 'embarrassing himself'?
TG: I think that people should choose their own time, when they want to retire, or what they want to do. I don’t think it’s any of Kafelnikov’s business what Pete does. Just like it’s not any of Pete’s business what Kafelnikov does. And I’m sure Pete could care less what Kafelnikov does. Pete, like I said, believes that he’s got another Slam or two left in him and he’s going to try to go after that. And that’s a very worthwhile pursuit for him. I think the moment he realizes, if in fact that doesn’t come true, the moment he realizes in his heart that he’s not going to be a contender to win a Grand Slam, I think he’ll be gone. He doesn’t need money. He’s got a beautiful wife, a beautiful home in Los Angeles, and he’s got nothing to prove, he’s probably the greatest player of all time. I think he deserves to pick his own time frame. And I don’t think anybody, whether it’s other players or the press should even comment on it. It’s ridiculous.
VB: As a former professional athlete yourself, what factors did you consider in deciding to hang up your racquets?
TG: Well, I played until I was 35 but I started late; I started when I was 24. Tim and I graduated from college; he took a teaching job at the Kettering Tennis Center in Dayton, Ohio. I took a job at Crystal Lake, which is a suburb of Chicago. So we actually talked for a couple of years before we went on the Tour. But I played from age 24 to 35 and that was the time when my oldest daughter was going into school. I played for 11 years and I got to the 3rd round of the US Open when I was 35 years old. So I was still playing ok, but it was time to be with the family more; I had two young daughters and I wanted to be with my family more.
VB: What do you think about our chances in the Davis Cup next month?
TG: I would have to say we’re the underdogs. I think Patrick (McEnroe, Davis Cup captain) can field a very competitive team. You know, certainly, we have a chance to win it. You have to slightly favor the French. I understand Agassi has ruled himself out. I know they asked him a little bit after their second round win and he said he didn’t feel right coming into the semis when all the other guys have done all the dirty work to get to the semis. And I think he’s given, Andre has given a lot to the Davis Cup over the years and I just can’t do well on the Tour and play Davis Cup.
VB: That’s what Pete said all those years and the public and press blasted him
TG: It’s a very fair comment, I think. So, obviously, Andy’s going to be there, Pete will probably be there and who knows? James Blake? Maybe. Todd Martin? Maybe. He’s got Gambill, who’s playing well but he doesn’t play too well on the clay, historically. So, we’ve got some options. I think we can win the match but I’d have to favor France a little bit.
VB: Talk about some of your highlights from those years where you captained the squad. Obviously, you’ve got the 1995 title and I was at the 1997 semi-finals in Washington, D.C. against Australia.
TG: That was one of the great Davis Cup matches that I was involved in; ’97 we beat Australia 4-1 in the semis; Rafter just won the US Open. And I will say that Sampras played the best tennis I’ve ever had the privilege to witness: the last three sets against Rafter. You know, the first set was incredible tennis, (Pete) lost in a tiebreaker, they both played great. Rafter was hitting diving volleys and overheads and he was just all over the net. And Pete had a bunch of break points and a couple of set points. And I just told Pete after the first set, “Pete, you know, you were really unlucky to lose the first set, but if you can raise your level up a little bit here. You’re coming very close to breaking him almost every time he serves. I mean, if you can just raise your level a little bit, you could really break this guy down. And that’s exactly what he did; he won the next two sets 6-1, 6-2 and played flawless tennis. His winner to error ratio was like four winners for every error. It was the most high quality tennis I’ve ever witnessed. And then he closed out the match 6-4 in the fourth and it was just a great experience.
VB: I recall that Australian Davis Cup captain John Newcomb’s strategy for winning the tie was to beat Michael Chang twice and take the doubles point. Before play even started, they had basically conceded the matches against Pete. You also put Pete in doubles with Todd Martin.
TG: We almost got the doubles point
VB: And you actually won the first set, I think
TG: We were up a set and a break and we had set point in the 2nd set. We came real close to winning the doubles and Chang actually made some great adjustments. You know, he lost to Rafter there at the U.S. Open (in the 1997 Semifinals by a score of 6-3, 6-3, 6-4) and was really disappointed, losing that match. We kind of watched tapes of that match a little bit and he made some really good adjustments, to take the ball earlier on the return, use more lobs, because Rafter gets so close (to the net) and hit passing shots behind him because Rafter moves to the open court so well. So we made about three or four tactical adjustments and Michael executed unbelievably well and won that first point for us (6-4, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4); and then Pete killed Philippoussis in the second match --- three straight sets easy (6-1, 6-2, 7-6(5)), so, obviously, we were in a great position from Day 1 on.
VB: Since Pete’s claim to fame will undoubtedly be his seven Wimbledon championships, your brother Tim obviously had a huge role in enabling Pete to accomplish what he has done at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club. What adjustments in Pete’s game did Tim make which paved the way for Pete’s success over there?
TG: Well, I think one of Pete’s early problems on grass, I think his record was maybe one win and three losses at Wimbledon before Tim started working with him, he had a hard time returning serve off his backhand. He took too big a swing and his swing path was too vertical. He was coming straight up on the ball, just wasn’t making good contact with the backhand return most of the time. And Tim taught him how to block the return, how to chip it and you know, just all about competing. I think that when Tim started working with Pete, Pete was obviously a great striker of the ball, but he wasn’t a great competitor, really. I think Tim, when he was at his best, playing wise, he wasn’t a great striker of the ball, but he was a great competitor. And I think that Tim made Pete understand that on the days when he wasn’t striking the ball well, he still had to figure out a way to win the match. And Pete certainly was one of the top three or four athletes on the Tour. And Tim just used to say, "Ok, Pete, put on your blue collar, go to work, use your athletic ability, grind a little bit, when you’re not striking it perfectly clean every time like you want to." I think those are the main points he added, certainly, to his grass court game and his overall competitiveness.
VB: Is grass the hardest surface for an American to play on or is it clay? What types of things do you have to do to adjust to the different surfaces?
TG: Well, you know, obviously grass is a surface that the boys don’t play on much at all anymore. They might play one or two or possibly three tournaments a year on it. So their games are more suited, obviously, for hard courts or indoors. And most of the Americans don’t grow up on clay. So, unless you’re from Florida, where you’d play a lot on clay, clay is kind of a tough surface for the Americans over the years. The adjustments you need, one is a mental adjustment. You know, you’re going to get some bad bounces; you need to really try to shorten the points a little bit. You need to adjust your swings, you can’t take the huge swings on grass that you might on a slow hard court or a clay court. So, you really need to make some adjustments to your game and also some adjustments to your thinking.
VB: There have been some suggestions to make Davis Cup better such as collapsing the schedule to a one-month period, making the competition every other year, like professional golf’s Ryder Cup, perhaps even moving the whole tournament to one neutral site. Do you favor any of those changes and do you think any of them will ever happen?
TG: I would favor every other year. I think if you look at this year, they had the World Cup soccer and soccer is the most popular sport in the world. And they play once every four years. To play Davis Cup every year is almost impossible with the schedule that these guys play on the ATP Tour, including the Grand Slams. Throw in Davis Cup and these guys never have any time off. I think every other year would do it. I’m not a big fan of condensing it into one month in one area, really. I think the beauty of Davis Cup has always been the home and away format and the away ties are some of my most memorable ties as Davis Cup captain. When we go to a foreign country and win, on their soil, with their surface against their crowd and everything. I would hate to see it go to one side and play at a neutral site; I think it would lose a lot of flavor, I think.
VB: Talk about the Davis Cup championship we got in 1995, obviously, the highlight of your tenure as captain. Was there any behind the scenes things that perhaps many people don’t know about. Was there any gamesmanship by the Russians, etc? On the ESPN highlights all the time, we’ll see Pete cramping and being dragged off the court by you.
TG: First of all, Kafelnikov made an interesting comment to the press that week of practice building up to the final. He basically said that even though Pete is # 1 in the world, Courier is the one we really fear because he’s won the French twice; he’s a great clay court player. He’s the one we’ve got to worry about; he’s going to be the leader of their team.
Pete, to that point, hadn’t had a great run on clay that much, he won matches on clay but it was never winning huge tournaments or anything. And you know, Pete was the # 1 player in the world at that time; so, I think Pete kind of took that as a challenge. Ok, I’m going to play some pretty good stuff and actually got us off to a great start.
He played (Andrei) Chesnokov in the first match. It was a hell of a match, Pete won 6-4 in the 5th, and on match point, he hit a short ball on his forehand and hit like a big approach down the line that ended up being a winner. Pete was running in to hit a volley and just lifted up his arms, you know, when he knew the match was over, in victory, and just had a full body cramp all over his body, and just collapsed on the court and the doctor and the trainer and I carried him off the court and that was like the last thing the Russians saw of Pete, you know, us carrying him off the court.
Then Kafelnikov played a really good match against Courier and beat Courier. You know, just played too well. Jim’s the kind of guy, he didn’t really like sitting in the locker room waiting for three, four hours to play. You know, he prepares so well. He likes to get out there.
But anyway, so that left us at one-all and I had a little decision to make because the original doubles plan was for Todd Martin to play with Ritchie Reneberg and for whatever reason, they weren’t playing particularly well in doubles in practice. They were losing to our practice partner and one of the coaches, Craig Boynton (laughing). We were having a real struggle in the doubles and I knew I needed to make a change.
Pete doesn’t really like to play doubles that much but, obviously, could be a great doubles player if he wanted to be. In fact, he and Courier won the Italian Championships when they were both 19 years old. So, Pete had to get the full body massage and IV fluids and everything after the match.
That night, about 9 o’clock, he’s in the training room, getting a rub, you know, and I walked up to him and said "Pete, what would you think about playing some doubles tomorrow?" And he kind of looked at me like I was nuts. Like "Doubles? Didn’t you see me collapse on the court?" And he goes, "Well, I haven’t really given that a lot of thought but you know, let me wake up tomorrow and see how I feel." He said, "Why don’t you just get Todd and Ritchie ready to play and then I’ll hit some afterward and see how I feel."
I talked to Todd and Ritchie and said, you know, I’m considering bringing Pete in here to play doubles and I was going to make Ritchie the odd man out and I was going to put Todd in with Pete. Ritchie was a team guy; he was a consummate professional. He played great Davis Cup for us, he was a team guy, didn’t have an ego. Ritchie said "Whatever you want to do is fine with me; if you want to put Pete in for me, that’s great, I’ll be the biggest cheerleader you’ve ever seen."
So, I hit with Pete for about half an hour after Todd and Ritchie hit. So we were sitting by the court and I said, "Well, what do you think, Pete?" And he said, "Well, I’m pretty stiff but it’s up to you." And I said, "You’re in."
We made the switch and Todd and Pete came out. You have to let the referee know an hour before the match and then they tell the other team, an hour before the match, that you’ve made the change. The Russian crowd was really surprised to see Sampras in the doubles, because their last image was him being dragged off the court in a full body cramp.
So, we got down a break early in the match, you know, Pete hadn’t played much doubles in awhile and Todd and Pete were just kind of getting a feel for each other out there. We got down a break early. We were playing Kafelnikov, who’s obviously a very good doubles player and Andrei Olhovskiy, who’s also a very good doubles player, and they were a team at the time. So, they had played a lot together and had a lot of success. And I remember distinctly we had a break point to get back to even in the first set and I think Olhovskiy had a fairly high volley at the net that he could have just nailed right down the middle and put away. Instead of nailing it, he kind of angled it, played a cuter shot and Pete ended running it down and hitting a winner on it. And we broke. And then I saw Kafelnikov give Olhovskiy a dirty look like "what are you doing?"
Fom that point on, the momentum of the match really changed. We ended up winning the first set, breaking again at 7-5. And then we won like 1 & 2 afterward; they had something negative going on there and they kind of lost a little heart. So we snuck out the doubles point with some great play from Todd & Pete.
And then match four was obviously Sampras & Kafelnikov and I think Pete realized that he didn’t have 100% energy to put into the match so he knew he had to come out strong, out of the gates. He played an incredible match and won in three straight sets. He won the first set easy and he had some break points early in the second set, he had something like 15-40 to break but he didn’t convert.
At the changeover, he was sitting next to me and said "Gully, you’ve got to stop twitching." And I said, "Pete, what do you mean?" Then he said "Those two break points I had in the last game, every time I hit the ball, I could see you kind of flinch." (Gully is laughing at this point). And I said, "Geeze, Pete, no wonder you’re number 1 in the world; you can play tennis and see what’s going on at the side of the court at the same time!"
So I said, "OK, Pete, I promise that if you convert, I’ll be still on the sideline."
VB: That’s pretty funny.
TG: Yeah, so we go out, Pete wins the second set pretty easy and the third set, he’s starting to get a little tired. Kafelnikov picks up his game; you know, Pete’s up two sets to love but you can see Kafelnikov getting a little momentum. So we go into a tiebreaker and Pete gets up a mini-break, then on match point, I’ll never forget it, he’s serving at 6-5 in the breaker, he hit about a 130 mile-per-hour ace right down the T to win the Davis Cup for us. It was really special; Pete played fantastic, it was ’95, so Tim was sick, you know, Tim had the brain cancer
VB: Was he there?
TG: No, he was not there, no, but I had talked to him a lot during the week and it was just a pretty special moment. It was a great team effort, obviously, by all the guys who were there. We all worked hard. In particular, Pete was phenomenal. He was absolutely phenomenal. It was December 2nd and we come back to the States and nobody cared.
VB: That was my next question.
TG: Nobody cared. I mean, literally, the tennis community obviously appreciated our effort, to win the Cup.
VB: No White House visit?
TG: No White House visit, virtually not anything in any of the magazines, hardly. And you know, college football is going on and pro basketball and Pete almost kills himself to win the Davis Cup and next year, I had a lot of trouble recruiting guys for the team. His quote was I didn’t expect a ticker tape parade down Madison Avenue but I would think that it (winning the Davis Cup) would have been a little blip on the radar screen of American sport. In ’96, I had a real hard time recruiting. You know, Pete had just given so much of himself and it’s like nobody cared, except for us, in the immediate tennis family
VB: I cared!
TG: And the real die-hard American tennis fan cared but we got virtually no (other) notice at all in public.
VB: Pete did mention that one reward he got from winning the Cup was that he got to play Augusta National (where professional golf’s Masters is played every year). That’s pretty impressive since they don’t let just anyone play on that course!
TG: Yeah, we got to play there. The USTA asked me "What can we do for the guys that would be special to them?" And I said, "Well, they all like to play golf, why don’t you get us on Augusta?" And they arranged for it in ‘96 but we got an ice storm on the day we were supposed to go up. But then we ended up playing in ‘97, so we did get on Augusta, which was pretty nice. But it was just a great tie all the way around. Great effort. Andre actually had played on the team that year some and had done a good job for us and he was injured. But he made the trip all the way over from Vegas, all the way over to Moscow, just to support the team, which was really nice because he, obviously, wasn’t playing. But he wanted to be there, to support the guys so he made a special effort to make the trip and be there when we won the Cup. So, it was really a special time for American tennis, I think."
VB: Did the Russians do anything with the court, like add extra water to it, to give them an unfair advantage? Obviously, if they did that, it would make the slow clay even slower.
TG: They tried to add extra water, but the referee had control of the watering of the court. And they wanted to get it really slow for us, but the referee, Stefan Fransson from Sweden, wouldn’t allow them to water it any more than what was needed."
VB: Would you ever want to go back and be the captain of the American Davis Cup team again, if you were asked?
TG: You know, I think that my time has passed. You know, I was captain for six years and it was an absolute privilege and honor to be the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team and I enjoyed every minute of it. You know, we’ve got a lot of qualified people that would make excellent captains, so, I’ll always be very supportive of the Davis Cup, obviously, and any American captain who wants to do it.
End of Interview
2000 Tennis Conversations
2002 Tennis Conversations