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Confident Pete Ready to Defend His Wimbledon Crown

Pete Sampras is a man who can smell his opponents fear and knows how to use that fear to gain a victory and claim their scalp. This is partly what has earned him a record 13 Grand Slam singles titles in a career spanning over 12 years.

As the Wimbledon 2001 Championships approach us, another record is what Pistol Pete Sampras will be aiming for. As if he is successful in his defence of his crown he would have broken the record he set last year by winning 14 Grand Slams and equalled Bjorn Borg's record of winning 5 consecutive Wimbledon titles! Thus out doing everyone who ever won Wimbledon from the period of William Renshaw onwards.

Although Pete Sampras has not won any tournaments since Wimbledon 2000, this factor pales into insignificance when it comes to the green, green grass here at SW19, especially to a man who has won 7 Wimbledon titles in the last 8 years. Who in their right mind would risk betting against him making it 8 out of 9 years? Pete Sampras's recent form or lack of form certainly doesn't seem to be affecting him as he speaks in between rounds at the Stella Artois event at Queen's Club. But he is quick to point out that it is too soon to be writing news headlines saying Pete Sampras wins Wimbledon.

Even though he is an inhabitant of Los Angeles, USA, he has openly proclaimed his love for Wimbledon by calling it "his home away from home".

"Yeah, it's a bit like coming home," he enthusiastically says. "It's nice to be back on the grass, which I love. Winning at Wimbledon is the best feeling for any tennis player. It's the ultimate for me, as good as it gets because of the history and what the event means to the sport."

Admittedly this is not the first time he has looked at the challenge of defending his Wimbledon title while searching to regain his form.

"I need to get back to winning ways, I need to let the other guys know I'm playing well because you need that confidence going into a Grand Slam. Things have kind of fallen into place for me at Wimbledon in the past, but I'm wondering if the bubble is gonna burst one year. Could be this year, could be 5 years from now."

"Sure, the year hasn't been great, but I have always had the ability to turn it on at certain moments. I have the inner belief that I can play well again. I can play a bad match and then play great the next day. I don't know how, but I can. Sometimes I've surprised myself by going into Wimbledon not having had a good year and I have won there."

A good example of this is last year's championships. He had a leg injury that was so bad that he was unable to practice during the tournament. Yet Sampras showed the traits of a true champion and found a way to fight through the pain and hit form when he needed to. In the final against Australia's Patrick Rafter he fought back from a set down and 1-4 down in the 2nd set tiebreaker to win.

"This time I am going to draw a lot from what happened there in 2000. No disrespect to the players I beat, but I really wasn't playing well. It will be nice to play it healthy this year. I have been very fortunate because everything has kind of fallen into place for me at Wimbledon. I have won a lot of close matches. Look at 1999. Mark Philippoussis was a set up against me but had to retire injured and I ended up winning again that year. But I have also played well at the right times. It's a matter of peaking the second week."

This is exactly what makes Sampras so much more superior next to others at Wimbledon. "The other guys fear me more here than any other place," Sampras admits knowingly "It definitely helps give me free points. You get used to the feeling of being the man to beat."

What helps Pete Sampras as well is keeping things as normal and hassle free as possible. He stays at the same rented house that he has rented for the past 4 years he has the same chef and maid as the four previous years too. All of this helps to make him feel as relaxed as possible and to be able to come home after his matches and shut out any media attention that has because a part of his life.

On August 12th Pete Sampras will become 30 years old and he confesses that he is finding it a little difficult to continually answer the barrage of question on when he will or won't retire from the professional tennis tour.

"People keep on asking me, "What's next, are you going to stop now?" I remember Stefan Edberg getting annoyed about being asked when he was going to stop, and he didn't get annoyed very often. I haven't thought about how many more years I will play. I have no idea. Retirement hasn't seriously crossed my mind."

This may sound like an unusual statement to make, as a player who many regard as being in the autumn of his playing days, but Pete Sampras is an unusual breed of player, one the likes we may never in our lifetimes see again and he explains further why he feels it is too premature to start writing his epitaph.

"My game doesn't take as much effort as someone who stays back a lot and has to grind out matches, so that will give me the durability to play many more years. If I am enjoying it, enjoying staying healthy, I will continue. But if I felt I wasn't playing well enough to be in contention for the Majors there would be no sense continuing. But that day is far away. My ego is pretty big and I feel I can still beat the guys who are coming up. Maybe not week in, week out, but certainly there is a long way to go yet."

When I asked, "What might he be doing in 5 years from now?" A sly grin appears on his face and he says, "I'll be right here still talking to you!" This must not be what his fellow tennis players had hoped to hear from him, as they must feel that as long as this great champion is still playing then the chances of them stealing Wimbledon Crown from him are very slim.

"Tennis is still a huge part of my life, it's what I'm passionate about, though it's different now from 5 years ago, when I was consumed with being No.1, and was playing a lot more. It used to bother me that I wasn't No.1, but not any more. I accept those days are over. It's time for someone else to lose their hair over it! I'm resigned to the fact that I no longer play enough to be No.1. I try to give myself the best schedule to do well at the Slams. Playing here, the US Open and the other Slams, that's the reason I keep on going."

Any other player having achieved what Pete Sampras has achieved would happily hang up their tennis racket and be content, but Pete Sampras is not just anybody, he a player who not only respects the sport, but also immerses himself in the history of the game and is always looking to see what record he can next conquer.

He holds the most Grand Slam singles titles (13) and proudly can claim to be the only player to have been ranked No.1 for a record 6 consecutive years.

"Those 6 years at the top might never be touched. It's so difficult to do, dealing with it and having so many commitments outside tennis. It helped that I was regarded as "boring" or whatever. That helped me just focus on my tennis, being laid-back but competitive. People saying I was too nice, is what made me tough in a way."

Many people have this pre-conception from his body language on the court that he is not competitive, but they are hugely mistaken.

"I am not a competitive person in every walk of life, just on the court. Something misunderstood about me over the years is whether I'm competitive. To do what I've done you need to be very competitive. But it's definitely only on court, nowhere else in my life. I don't need to win every card game or whatever."

What he is saying is that just because he doesn't shout or show any emotion while playing doesn't mean that he is not determined to win.

"Today you have Lleyton Hewitt, who is obviously fired up, but I am more subtle. The passion and the determination is there and people who know me well see it in my eyes and see it in my expression."

One of the people who know him best is Paul Anacone who for the past 7 years has coached Pete Sampras. He particularly remembers the autumn of 1998. "It was the most stressful time I have spent with him," Anacone explains "He sets himself these goals and is so stubborn about achieving them. It eats away at him but he has this huge self belief and thinks he can do it, no matter what."

Sampras is guy who flourishes and is at his happiest when he is exhibiting his amazing athletic prowess to a stadium/arena full of admiring spectators. Although off the court he is known as being a shy and very private individual.

He is also a man who when playing is in complete control of his emotions and displays the face not unlike that of a poker player. This ice cool fa├žade has hardly ever being broken.

The first time he did show his sensitive and emotional side came at the Australian Open in 1995 when Sampras was in the midst of a thrilling quarterfinal battle against Jim Courier. For on that fateful day his then coach and closest friend, Tim Gullikson had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Such was the impact on Pete Sampras that following pulling the match back after being 2 sets down that the usually emotionally controlled man at the start of the 5th set began to cry uncontrollably. This display of raw emotions shocked even the people who thought they knew him.

"It was astonishing," said Anacone "Here was this intensely private man crying in front of a packed Stadium Court in a match being televised around the world and yet still being able to focus sufficiently on what he was doing to beat someone of Courier's calibre. It was kind of an oxymoron. How could you be so emotional and so tough at the same time? But that's the contradiction that Pete conceals so well. Normally he keeps so much deep inside himself but that night he couldn't. The tears just came spilling out. But he still won."

Tragically Tim Gullikson died in May 1996.

Paul Anacone confides that since Pete Sampras married actress Bridgette Wilson last September it has added a new sense of happiness to Sampras' life.

"I was interested to see how he would bounce back after the disappointment of not doing well at the French Open," Anacone said "It was a serious disappointment and I wondered whether he could flush it out in time to play well at Queen's. I think having Bridgette in his life has helped. He is supremely confident about his ability on grass. He thinks he can go on winning Wimbledon for another 5 years and maybe he's right."

Anacone also agrees that Pete's unchanged and easy routine during Wimbledon will help him to win again.

"That's Pete, of all the Champions I've ever known, Pete more than any other, just doesn't need to be a celebrity."

This is true Pete Sampras has only ever being interested in winning and not the star status that comes with the wins. Who knows if it will be Pete Sampras who on the 8th July 2001 will be hold a loft the Wimbledon Trophy again, all that can be said is that he is going to give it everything he's got and will not relinquish his crown without a fight first.

Based on articles published on the Independent and The Sunday Times, UK.

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