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Pete's Feet of Clay

May 29, 2000

“I certainly haven’t gotten the breaks at this event over the years. It’s sure frustrating flying home tomorrow. I was certainly hoping to be a threat here.”

That was Pete Sampras’s epitaph on his latest quest for the elusive grail of Roland Garros. Having announced that he was going to try to ‘let go of the pressure that I put on myself to do well here’, Sampras showed his disappointment at falling short of his hopes of a first French Open yet again. Since his best effort of reaching the Semi-Final in 1996, his progress has been downhill: the 3rd round in ’97, the 2nd round in ’98 and ’99. And this year it ends in the first.

After winning only two of his five preparatory matches on clay, it was perhaps surprising that Sampras arrived in Paris seeded second. A glance at the draw, however, made anxious reading for Sampras and his followers. Starting with the hard-hitting Mark Phillippoussis, the American had a perilous route to navigate if he were to reach the Final for the first time. His Australian opponent had already proved his prowess on French clay, by winning both his Singles matches last year in Nice, when the Aussies beat France in the Davis Cup Final. So the omens for Sampras were not good.

He started well, taking an early lead with the first set for 6-4. But in the second, Phillippoussis took his chance when Sampras double faulted on break point. He went on to take the set and even the match. In the third set tie-break Sampras, so often at his competitive best in breakers, was a little hesitant and paid the price, allowing his opponent to take the only mini-break with a spectacular running crosscourt forehand.

Sampras rallied in the fourth, serving it out at 6-4. But in the deciding set, Sampras was back on the heavier side of the see-saw. Despite his plan, the American appeared to be feeling the pressure: again, he double faulted on break point, to go behind 4-2. He managed to level the score at 4-4 but was unable to break. Sampras denied later that he had been fatigued, but one wonders why else he called to the umpire at 6-6 in the final set: “Do we play a tiebreaker now?” As the answer was negative, the match continued, painfully for Sampras. After 3 hours and nearly 40 minutes, the king of grass court tournaments served up, at love-40 on his least favourite surface, his eighth double fault. There was no way back. Phillippoussis steamed in to seal victory, with a scoreline of 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 8-6.

At his press conference, Sampras informed those assembled matter-of-factly: “The fifth set comes down to nerves, and he had the better nerve”. But his dejection had been obvious, as he shoved his rackets into his bag and left the court, without even looking up to acknowledge the ovation from the crowd. He admitted to being disappointed, but insisted that he had played well and it was a close match.

“It could have gone either way. I feel like I had some chances, but Mark, I give him all the credit. He served huge. Playing Mark in the first round is certainly a tough draw. I thought I competed well to come back from two sets to one, but it was an advantage to him when he was serving in the fifth set, always up one. I lost my service [only] twice in a five-set match. I just didn’t make enough of an impact on his serves.”

Asked whether it would always bother him if he failed to win the French, or whether he would be happy with his many other achievements, Sampras replied:

“In a perfect world, a perfect career, you’d like to win all the majors, do everything in the game. It’s a very high bar, you know, that I’ve raised. It would be disappointing if I didn’t win it, but life will go on. It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of, not winning here. But I would certainly one day love to do it.”

So there we have it – the reason why the only player to tie Number of Slams Won with Roy Emerson’s twelve, still keeps coming back for more.

Source: Steven Wine, Associated Press

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