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Major mission still motivates Sampras

February 12, 2001

Holding the men's record with 13 Grand Slam championships in his collection, Pete Sampras remains as dedicated a craftsman as there is in the game of tennis. His motivation to win more major titles has not diminished, and his sense of who he is and what he could still accomplish make him a man with an unwavering mission. When we spoke recently, the 29-year-old Sampras was back in his California home after starting his 2001 campaign with a fourth-round loss to his compatriot Todd Martin at the Australian Open. He had won the opening set of that contest before bowing in four sets. He was disappointed, but not distressed.

"Todd played probably the best match he has ever played against me," said Sampras, handling his setback with typical equanimity. "From 3-3 in the second set, he played like he was in the zone. I give him full credit, but any time I lose in a major, when I get back home I feel that no matter how well my opponent played I should have found a way to win. So part of me feels I let Todd play that well. Still, you have to accept the losses and move on."

Sampras will play a full schedule of tournaments over the winter and through the spring, and plans to make his first appearance back on the ATP Tour at Memphis, Tennessee, later this month. But his next major event will be on the slow red clay of Roland Garros in Paris, where he will strive for the 12th time to win the only Grand Slam event he has not mastered. Since reaching his only semi-final in Paris five years ago, Sampras has not advanced past the third round.

"The French Open is probably the toughest Slam to win," he asserts, "because there aren't just four guys that can win it - there are 40 guys that could. It is the biggest challenge I have with my tennis but I have decided to play more clay court tournaments leading up to the French and winning some tough matches at those events would definitely help me.

"I know that it gets tougher as you get a little older. Each year that goes by that I don't win the French Open is a year lost. But it is not the time for me to get nervous about this yet. I still feel I have a couple more good shots to possibly do it in Paris and I am feeling good about this year."

No matter how successful he is in his quest to rule in Paris, Sampras seems certain to make his presence known again on the lawns of the All England Club, where he has performed so majestically across the years. He has captured the world's most prestigious tennis tournament in seven of the last eight years.

In the process, he has become more than an enduring champion; he is a Wimbledon institution. In late June and early July, he will seek his fifth Centre Court crown in a row.

To be sure, Sampras will be eager to stretch his run of greatness where it matters the most. He will be the favourite, and would undoubtedly be exhilarated by another triumph on the grass. He could be hard pressed, however, to move beyond the emotions he reached in breaking the Grand Slam title record last July in the fading light on Centre Court. He had played most of the fortnight through pain, receiving injections before his matches to treat tendinitis in his left shin, trying acupuncture, doing everything he could to overcome his circumstances. In the end, he prevailed 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 over Patrick Rafter in a stirring final after the Australian served with a commanding 4-1 lead in the second set tie-break. The battle concluded at 8:57pm, only minutes before darkness would have intervened.

"I didn't know where I might break the record, but it was fitting that it was Wimbledon, where I had done so well. When it got so dark, it was like a fairy-tale ending."

Sampras recollects the drama of that event with clarity and sensitivity, saying: "It was really hard for me to play on injections, something I had never done before. That was the only way I could play the tournament. But after about an hour and 15 minutes, the injection would wear off. The morning after my matches I couldn't even walk. Then I would get treatment before the next match and I wouldn't feel the injury for a while. It was kind of an out-of-body experience to feel that."

His problems were compounded when long rain delays interrupted his appointment with Rafter. "That was an unbelievable scenario," he recalls. "I had the injection before the match and the rains came and it wore off. I was talking to the doctor about what I should do. I just left it alone and had to deal with it and play through it. It is amazing what adrenalin can do for you."

Cheering him on against Rafter were his parents, Sam and Georgia, along with his wife to be, Bridgette Wilson. They had never seen him win a Grand Slam event in person. "This is pretty much how I always wanted it to happen," says Sampras. "I didn't know where I might break the record, but it was fitting that it was Wimbledon, where I had done so well. When it got so dark , it was like a fairy-tale ending. It was a surreal feeling to look back on being a part of that. And to have my parents and future wife there was about as good as it is ever going to get for me as an athlete."

Having said that, Sampras still looks forward to the forthcoming Wimbledon. "I don't know what it is about Wimbledon," he reflects. "I don't have the recipe on how I do it. But I just have this kind of inner belief that I am going to do it again. I have been fortunate to win Wimbledon so many times. I feel like I am the best on grass and the Centre Court has been my home for the last eight years. I would love to win a couple more Wimbledons and call it a career. I would also be happy if it ended tomorrow and I had my seven titles, which is more than I ever thought I'd have. I will just go in there this year with the same mindset. Hopefully, it happens again."

Although Bridgette Sampras leads a busy life an actress, she travels with her husband to tournaments as much as possible.They were married on 30 September last year in Los Angeles. Sampras clearly values his wife's presence at the most important tournaments. "I have been lucky," he says of Bridgette, "that she is such a patient person. She has her own career but is great about mine. I feel like I need her everywhere, but especially at the majors where the tension is so high. When I first met her she didn't know much about the game. She totally understands how focused I am on what I am doing when I am preparing for matches. We both support each other immensely. It would be great to win a couple more majors and share that with Bridgette, to enjoy the moment like we did at Wimbledon last year. I hope we can get that feeling back a couple more times this year."

Sampras could distinguish himself as the only man ever to win at least one Grand Slam tournament for nine straight seasons if he manages to claim one of the game's primary prizes this year. He is fully convinced that he can bring out his best again at the times of consequence. Andre Agassi's triumph at the Australian Open has been a source of encouragement for Sampras, who says: "Andre's winning the Australian goes to show that you can still do well when you are 30. Andre and I both know that when we get our games going we are still kind of the hot favourites to win Slams. As much as Gustavo Kuerten and Marat Safin are great players, and as well as they represent the sport, Andre and I can still make things happen. He proved that in Australia and I proved it at Wimbledon and a little at the US Open last year. We can still do it at 29 and 30, so I am going to work hard to finish my career in a positive way. I have no question in my mind that I can do that."


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Sampras still feels he can play with the best

February 12, 2001

OAKLAND, California - Pete Sampras has not won a Grand Slam off grass since 1997 and no longer has the burning desire for the top ranking he once had, but at 29 he still believes he has the goods and mental fortitude to keep up with tennis' young guns. "I'm not scared of anyone," Sampras told Reuters in a recent telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. "It's a question of how much I want to compete. I'm not going to play 20 to 25 events like I used to. I need to play enough to stay sharp, but with my ability, I think I can still play with anyone," he insisted.

In his last three major events -- the 2000 U.S. Open, the 2000 Tennis Masters Cup and the 2001 Australian Open -- Sampras failed to produce the firepower and willpower that brought him a record 13 Grand Slam titles and the number one ranking a record six years running. He was stream-rolled by young Russian Marat Safin in the U.S. Open final, was left wide- eyed by the wizardry of Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten at the Masters Cup and fell to his long- time whipping boy Todd Martin last month in Australia.

But the ageing former world number one bristles at suggestions that it is time for him to step aside and let the next generation battle for Grand Slam glory. "There's a lot of good young players but no one who really scares me," he said. "Andre Agassi is the one guy who can beat me when I'm playing well, but with Safin and Kuerten, even though they've beaten me, I feel like the match is on my racket. "The majority of guys now are baseliners. It's not like I'm a huge guy with just a huge serve and nothing else. Week in and week out it does get tougher, but when I'm on, it's tough for guys to beat me," said Sampras, who will take a wild card entry into next week's Memphis tournament to keep sharp ahead of next month's bigger events at Indian Wells and Miami. "I just need to stay inspired and motivated and that's my challenge," he added. "I still have the tools."

Sampras's coach, Paul Annacone, said that when his pupil is on, he still has no peers. "When Pete plays his best tennis, he's unequivocally the best player out there," Annacone said. "Will he produce that tennis 12 months out of the year? That's up to Pete. "He still has room for small improvements and I think he's motivated to make them." After winning his seventh Wimbledon title and record 13th Grand Slam last summer in a dramatic five-set victory over Patrick Rafter, Sampras could retire tomorrow and be considered by many the greatest ever.

When he reflects back on his most recent Wimbledon victory, Sampras still gets a little choked up. "It was a storybook ending -- my parents were there, how well I played, the sun going down just as I won. It was the perfect way to break the record, a perfect match," recalled Sampras, who won despite playing with an injured shin that kept him off the practice courts. "It's as good as it ever got and maybe as good as it will ever be. Even if I win it again, it will probably never approach that."But I want to have that special feeling again and will keep trying to see if I can get it again."

There remains one glaring omission from Sampras's Grand Slam resume -- the French Open, where he has failed to get past the third round since reaching the semifinals in 1996. "Winning the French Open, that would be a perfect career ender," Sampras admitted. "It's the one place I'm not supposed to win. "Of course I'd like to win more Wimbledons because that's always been my place. And I haven't won a U.S. Open in a while," added Sampras, whose fourth and last U.S. Open crown came in 1996, before the new stadium was opened. "But the French Open is my biggest challenge. I've won everything I wanted to win and then some," he said. "I'm still trying to figure the French out."

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