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Sampras Seeking Another Record

June 25, 2000

“This place brings out the best in me. Something just takes over.”

As you may have guessed, that quote is from Pete Sampras. The occasion was the eve of the 2000 Wimbledon Championships, as he contemplated the start of his annual bid to add to his collection of Wimbledon titles. Already standing at an impressive half dozen, a seventh would not only tie Sampras with William Renshaw for the most ever won by a male player (although Renshaw achieved his in the much less competitive Nineteenth Century) but would see him surpass Roy Emerson’s long-standing record of having won twelve Grand Slams. The Sampras silverware also includes four US Open and two Australian Open titles.

Being driven through the familiar wrought iron gates of the All England Tennis Club never loses its thrill for Sampras. On his way past the hundreds of tents which mushroom annually along Church Road during the Championships, where the die-hard fans camp overnight to secure places in the queue for show court tickets to watch their idols perform, Sampras has even been known to smile in acknowledgment of his supporters at Camp Sampras – a group of tents emblazoned with such legends as ‘Pete Sampras, King of the Courts.’ But he refrains from giving a royal wave.

As he told fellow player and compatriot Jim Courier in a recent interview:

“Every time I go back to the club and walk through the gates, I think it’s the most unique place in the world to play and to compete. I make a special trip to Centre Court, before the crowds arrive, and sit in the stands, step on that grass and look around. There is so much atmosphere and tradition. It’s amazing and I definitely appreciate it more now, at 28, than at 21. The older I get, there is a kind of surreal feeling out there. It’s a historical place and whenever I win here I feel like I’m making history.”

It isn’t often that the reserved and undemonstrative Sampras shares his feelings with the public by speaking at length on anything close to his heart. Perhaps the fact that he will reach his thirtieth year in a few weeks has led him to contemplate his achievements and his place in the annals of the game. He has recently voiced a long-felt wish for his parents to travel to Wimbledon for the first time. Usually Sam and Georgia are too nervous to watch their son play even on television, but Pete is obviously feeling confident enough to persuade them to be there this year. If he does break the Grand Slam record, he wants to do it with three of the people dearest to him in the world present. Who is the third? Her name is Bridgette Wilson, the film actress who recently became his fiancée.

“Yeah, I got engaged a couple of weeks ago. I’m very happy, very excited, that I met a great lady that I’m going to share my life with.” Sampras’ voice breaks with emotion as he continues: “It’s a new chapter of my life that I’m looking forward to – settling down, and having a family one day.”

Now however, business calls – preparations for defending his Wimbledon title. Tomorrow at 2pm will see Sampras once again opening proceedings on Centre Court. His first opponent is unlikely to cause him any loss of sleep – Jiri Vanek, an unseeded Czech. But Sampras is a notoriously slow starter and often looks vulnerable in the early stages of a tournament. But regulars at the British Slam know better than to take Pete’s hang-dog stance or lack of sharpness as an indication that he might not be able to keep firm hold on his title – they’ve seen his transformation on the grass of SW19 too often. No-one knows better than he how to pace himself for 7 matches over two weeks, some of them potentially 5-setters. This seems to be how he does it, by expending only enough energy to win the point, the game, the match, inexorably round by round. Why wear yourself out with two breaks of serve if one will do? He lets some of his challengers waste energy with extravagant on-court antics.

That other high-achiever at Wimbledon, Bjorn Borg, had a relatively short career. Stefan Edberg’s was already fading when he reached the age that Sampras is now. Ever-mindful of his place in tennis history and having been injured twice last year, Sampras has decided to play a reduced schedule in future, in the hope of prolonging his career and chances of further achievements. Playing considerably less matches than those ranked above him has seen Sampras’ world ranking drop to10 for the first time in nearly a decade. But this is of no consequence to him: he held the number one ranking for an unprecedented six years and has other priorities now. As far as tennis is concerned, his goal now is the Slams: “That is what I play for”.

His great rival Andre Agassi has voiced the doubt that Sampras can continue to keep motivated. Although he may have a vested interest in wishing that his fellow American would retire from the game, Agassi, who dropped out of the tour for two years and became more prominent on the playboy circuit, thinks that now Pete has moved to Los Angeles he may discover the kind of life he has missed out on during his many arduous years of training, playing and travelling. Even though his off-court schedule sees him courting a film star, it seems unlikely that the bright lights of Las Vegas or Hollywood could lure the dedicated Sampras away from the sport to which he has given more than half his life. Whether wanting to stay home with Bridgette, and maybe a brood of little Samprases, could bring that about is another matter.

Although Sampras may not be as consistent as he was two or three years ago, his name in any draw still strikes fear into the heart of all but the most battle-hardened tennis warriors. This is even truer at Wimbledon, where players speak of his having an ‘aura’ about him, a sense of impregnability. Sampras himself admits to having won matches there mainly on the strength of his awesome reputation.

A classic example of his seeming to be able to summon up his genius almost on command at Wimbledon is last year’s final against Agassi. The latter had been playing like a man possessed all year, whereas Sampras had started to look, according to some pundits, as though his best years might have been behind him. Pete’s progress through the draw had been less than convincing, whereas Andre sashayed through it mostly on cruise control. On Finals Day the Las Vegan made his entry on Centre Court so fired up that he looked as though he were plugged into a light socket. By contrast, the winner of the previous three finals, and three more prior to those, appeared as composed as any consummate businessman ready to bring off another major deal.

The consternation of the best returner in the game at being handed a lesson in how to serve and volley on grass can only be imagined. Agassi started so confidently, but lost the first set 6 – 3. That wasn’t too much of a deficit to overcome. Then the second went to Sampras 6-4. Summoning up all his weapons, Agassi made a fight of the third set, but Sampras reached match point at 6 – 5.

“It’s so hard to explain that feeling I felt. All of a sudden, the match is on your racket and you start breathing heavier and you start thinking, ‘Wow, this is it. This can still go either way’. I could have gone from winning the title right then to playing a tiebreaker and maybe losing it. And, you know, I just kind of went for it…. There was absolutely nothing going on in my mind. It’s all instinct, nerve, at that point. And I surprised myself.”

Not as much as he surprised his challenger. Taking the third set at 7 – 5, Sampras ended hostilities unusually early for a Wimbledon Men’s Final, leaving his opponent looking completely deflated, like a party balloon after someone has let all the air out.

Andre Agassi’s abilities as a player on any surface cannot be denied, but as so often before when he faced Sampras across the net, he met his Nemesis. The Wimbledon wizard had worked his magic yet again. Perhaps the inevitable outcome of the match is best illustrated by a point in the second set. After a desperate dive to retrieve a volley, Sampras picked himself up slowly, painfully. And then sent an ace screaming past his adversary, who shook his head in disbelief. Even when Pete Sampras is down you cannot count him out, especially on the grass of his favourite tournament.

Afterwards, the re-crowned king of Wimbledon said:

“I couldn’t have played any better. Under the circumstances, it’s got to be at the top of my list.”

But a copy of the video is unlikely to be on Andre Agassi’s Christmas list.

If in two weeks’ time Sampras raises the Wimbledon trophy to become the first male player to win 13 Grand Slam titles, he will surely deserve the accolade of ‘Greatest Player Ever’.

As the tennis gods beckon him to even greater glory, Sampras signs off simply with:

“I’m ready to go.”

To the other 31 seeds in the draw and those without numbers in front of their names:


Source: Johnette Howard, New York News Day (Long Island edition)


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