The grass is always greener for Sampras
June 3, 2001
Pete Sampras is killing inside. The Wimbledon champion does not even feel like picturing himself on a grass court such is the pain of defeat at Roland Garros and the doubting of himself that goes with the territory of another setback on clay. "I know deep down I have the game to beat anyone," he said and, because he is the finest player of this generation and arguably of all time, your instinct is to take him at his word.
By the time the US Open swings around, Sampras will have entered the 30th year of a life of astonishing achievement. We are five weeks to the day from an anticipated eighth coronation at Wimbledon and the 14th Grand Slam title that would put increased daylight between him, the legends before and those who are destined to spend the rest of time in vain pursuit of his records. Those who think his recent parlous run of form will extend on to grass had better not crow just yet.
"Even if I've not been consistent this year, I still know where to find my best tennis," he said. "I have always placed the bar very high and when I don't reach it, there's disappointment. I know people have talked about retiring from the sport and, when you get to 30, you realise that most of the greats didn't carry on beyond 31 or 32. But there's a lot to come yet. "I've been on the tour for 13 years but I still take pleasure from doing my stuff on the court. People mention the travel and the hotels, and I've done my fair share, but it's a great job. I play a sport to earn a living [Sampras had amassed $41 million in prize money alone at the last count] and I'm sure a lot of people would rather do that than spend all day sitting in front of a computer. "I'm going to be 30 later this year, I have a few more years - three, five, two, who knows exactly? I don't have a clear perception on it right now. You get used to competition, I know I'll miss it when I stop playing, especially the Grand Slam finals because they give me immense pleasure. They are like a drug for the ego. But when I do retire that will be it, there will be no coming back.""It's becoming more difficult for me to keep winning matches week in, week out as I used to five years ago,"
As he prepared to head away from Paris in the company of his actress wife, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, you wondered whether it was co- incidence that his marriage last September had marked a turn in his playing fortunes. This year, Sampras has played 18 matches, won 10, lost in four first rounds and reached a lone final at Indian Wells where he succumbed to Andre Agassi. "It's becoming more difficult for me to keep winning matches week in, week out as I used to five years ago," he admitted following his second-round defeat by Spain's Galo Franco. "I've tried to build a schedule to be in peak form at the Grand Slams but it didn't work here or in Australia. Marriage hasn't changed my attitude to tennis. I imagine myself one day with a family. "I want to be a dad. I see my brothers and sisters with their kids and that's something I really want to do in the future." Which does bring the conversation neatly around to parents, and tennis parents in particular.
The scenes at Wimbledon on men's final day last year remain all too vivid. In the near dark, Sampras, his body coursing with emotion at his record 13th Slam title, went walking around the court, squinting through the kaleidoscopic flashes, trying to see where his parents, Georgia and Sam, were sitting. Once discovered, he threw his arms around both of them, knowing how much torture it was for them to watch him play. The previous day, Richard Williams had danced on a TV commentary box when Venus won the women's title. Venus - and everyone else - knew where he was. This year, Mr Williams has accused a California crowd of racist verbal attacks on his two daughters.
Sampras shudders. "The sisters are the two best athletes in women's tennis," he said. "When you see them move, you sometimes get the impression it's men versus women, they are so powerful. They'll probably dominate for many years. "But they should be careful. They have to consider different factors, what the public expects, because nobody is bigger than the sport. I know their father has said some provocative things but they must all be aware of the need to behave like champions on and off the court. They're young. I'm sure what happened at Indian Wells [where the accusations of racism flourished] was not a pleasant situation. They will have learned lessons from it. "I've seen him in the player's box doing his thing, but they are his daughters and he wants to protect them. My parents always said I must take responsibility for myself, be independent. But I'm a son, they are daughters. My Mom and Dad let me live my life, make my own choices. They have their way, I had mine."
A new young American has burst on to the scene this year and one of Andy Roddick's most notable achievements was to beat Sampras in straight sets on his way to the quarter-finals of the Ericsson Open in March. Sampras feels it still. "I was frustrated not to have a better attitude that day and forgot who my opponent was," he said. "Andy is someone we're going to hear an awful lot about. I'm convinced he will lead the new generation." So did the defeat have symbolic connotations? "Not yet," Sampras said. "But if he beats me at Wimbledon, I could think it's time for me to put my rackets aside and do something else. "But Andre [Agassi] and I, we still have enough weapons in our respective games to be efficient without taking too much from our bodies. I have my serve that allows me to win a lot of easy points and Andre takes the ball so early that he doesn't need to expend as much energy as a Kuerten or a Ferrero. They are the three guys to beat next week, but I've had enough of clay for another year."
Now it's time to turn his thoughts to greener things.