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Pete pursues his 8th Wimbledon

June 11, 2001

Sitting up in the stands surrounding the main court at Queen's Club in west London, Pete Sampras is watching a quartet of lady members play an arthritic game of doubles. At one point in the gentle, pedestrian match, the ball balloons off the top of a player's racket and arcs into the stand, just below the Wimbledon champion's feet. "Excuse me, would you mind," barks one of the ladies in a voice that could curdle milk at 40 paces. As Sampras leans forward to return the ball, the woman suddenly spots whom she is ordering about.

"Oh my God," she says. "It's you. I'm so sorry. I'm . . . Don't worry. You. Oh God."

"It's OK," says Sampras, grinning. "I'm not often mistaken for a ball boy."

From that moment on, knowing he is in the stand, the quartet's game goes to pieces. They can't serve any more, they can't return, they keep stealing glances at the great champion to see if they can spot any critical reaction on his face. Sampras, his mind elsewhere, isn't even watching. Yet his very presence has intimidated these four club players into shuffling incompetence. But at least the ladies can take comfort from the fact that they are not alone. At the sight of those bow legs rolling on to the court, at the sight of that slight ironic smile, at the sight of that intense stare beneath the luxuriant brows, over the past 10 years many a top professional player has similarly been beaten before the warm-up.

"Oh sure, I've won a lot of matches by reputation," he says. "You can sense that. You know, the other guy's been nervous, not able to play at his best. It definitely helps having that aura of being No1."

Then he pauses and smiles. "Not that I can rely on that any more."

Indeed not. When Sampras arrived in Britain at the weekend, to prepare for his standard assault on first the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's, then Wimbledon, he was at his lowest ebb for a decade. Fifth in the ATP rankings, and likely to sink further when the new table is announced today, he was dispatched early from the French Open, the one major title he has never won. And, it is clear, another failure over the Channel hurt.

"The whole year's been pretty disappointing, but Paris was a major deflation," he says. "You know, I'd put a lot of energy, a lot of thought, really a whole year's focus on the one major I hadn't won. And I didn't play well, in fact I lost, and it really wasn't a good day to have a bad day. And I went home and I was just very down. Since then I've told myself to look forward, to move on, and over time I guess you do, but right now, you know, I've felt better."

It is amazing for those of us who can barely hold a racket, for anyone who stood at the side of the practice court at Queen's and watched him pepper Tim Henman with a bruising barrage of incendiary serves, indeed for any tennis enthusiast who saw him win Wimbledon a record seven times, to hear him sounding so depressed. Particularly since his image is one of a character bypass, an emotion-free robot. Surely automatons are not meant to get the blues.

"Hey, I appreciate what I've done," he says, attempting to sound upbeat when it is obvious his mood matches the grey blanket of cloud hanging overhead. "But I'm always trying to get better. I've never been one to sit back on what I've done. Great, you've done it, but the fact is I have a pretty high bar. You want to live up to that every time you play and in that way it hurts when you miss the target."

Is that how the sportsman who has won so much motivates himself, then? By identifying new targets?

"Yeah, that's kind of it," he says. "It made the French thing stand out that much more that I'd not won it, I put that much more focus on it. So in a way that's why it's hurt me. When you put that much in, it's hard to get over it. All the sacrifice, all the training and to get nothing out of it."

As it happens, Sampras off court is no automaton. No extrovert either, perhaps, but it is clear he is intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful. And at the moment much of his thinking is being directed towards the implications of his own physical decline.

He is now 29, and the disappointment of his Paris failure is exacerbated by the knowledge that next year it will be even harder to raise his game. Painfully, the thought has begun to form in his mind that he will never win the French Open; that, as his tournament-winning abilities begin to wane, he will not be entering the record books as he always hoped he would, joining Andre Agassi as one of the small band who have completed the grand slam. Certainly he appears resigned to the fact that one achievement he held for so long - being the No1 player in the world - is now a thing of the past.

"For me, when I got to No1, the hard part about it was trying to stay there," he says. "Of course it's difficult to get there, but to stay there is a totally different battle."

Battle? That's a charged word. "It's the right word," he says. "You're a marked man."

Did he find it a lonely place at the top? "Yeah, you do, you feel lonely there," he says. "Most definitely. I got kind of used to being the guy everyone wanted to beat."

So you're not being paranoid, they all really are out to get you.

"Though it's important not to get too overwhelmed by that feeling," he adds. "You're not taking them all on at once. It's still just you against another person, one at a time, and you have to remain confident that your ability is better than your opponent's."

Even so, is it something of a relief not to be No1 any more?

He pauses for a moment before answering. "Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the time I was on top, and I guess I'd love to get back there. I guess," he says. "But it definitely takes its toll. Physically because you're playing quite a bit. Mentally it's about more than playing great tennis. It's about a lifestyle, it's about maintaining a certain attitude."

And the more he talks, the more he uses the past tense.

"The levels of energy needed to get back there, I'm not sure if I have that any more," he says. "You know, the players out there are getting better. There's a sense that it's a battle to stay motivated enough. You know, I put all my energies into Paris, and to be No1, you can't do that. You can't turn it off and on like a light switch, you have to be there at the top of your game every week, you have to do well at Rome, at Hamburg, here at Queen's. It's not just about focusing on one tournament.

"And it's not looking like I'll get back. Really, it's not as much a goal for me. You know, those guys like Lendl and Connors, they just had to be No1. I'm just trying to get myself a schedule that kind of feels right for me now, and that probably won't involve enough tennis to get back up there again. I used to play in the neighbourhood of 23 events a season; now I doubt I'll play more than 14, maybe 15. I guess it's time for someone else to take over the reins."

So is this the R word that's forming in his mind?

"The word retirement is an official word," he says. "I don't want to come across like I'm stopping. I'm just reining in a little. I'm aware of the privilege of earning a living this way. But I think as you grow older, you become more aware that there are cons as well as pros to this life. At the moment the pros still outweigh the cons. And you know, once it's over, it's over. You don't want to let go prematurely."

Maybe not, but one thing has clearly happened to Sampras in the past year. Since the age of seven he has been preoccupied solely with tennis. Nothing else mattered. But last September he married a movie actress called Bridgette Wilson and he has since begun to appreciate that there may very well be a life outside court there to be lived.

"You naturally broaden as you get older," he suggests, and on the evidence exposed when his shirt lifts as he serves, he is not talking about the waistline. "When you start off you have this unbelievable energy to make your mark. But as you get older you need other things: falling in love, getting married, having kids. I've been in that position where everything in life has been focused on tennis, and I'm not sure I can go back there. Being in love, moving back to Los Angeles where I'm from, getting back in touch with my family, who I haven't really known since I went to Florida as a kid to play tennis, this is the other side of life. I'm getting older. Tennis is still important, but in a different way, a kind of much more controlled way."

In the meantime, though, there is Wimbledon, a tournament he has dominated so totally for so long that last year he won virtually playing on one leg. In a month's time, that will be the moment to judge how far Pete Sampras has declined. If he is not there on Centre Court, holding up that gold trophy, then the canary really will have died.


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