2001 - A year to Forget
October 24, 2001
Pete Sampras's decision to pull out of the Swiss Indoor event, after a shock defeat to qualifier Max Mirnyi at the Stuttgart Masters last week, might be the first sign that he is finally starting to apply the brakes on his glittering career.
Admittedly, Sampras has had a season he would like to wipe from the record books but never before has the 30-year-old American shied away from the opportunity to gain valuable ranking points.
Without a title since winning a record 13th Grand Slam crown at Wimbledon 2000, Sampras has had a miserable year and his exit in Stuttgart means that for the first time since 1990 he has failed to qualify for the season-ending Masters Cup.
It is also the first time since 1991 that Sampras, currently ninth in the world rankings, will finish the year outside the top five.
And if the American decides to bring his season to a premature end by pulling out of next week's Paris event as well, he would finish the year without winning a tournament for the first time since 1989.
"I'm not quite sure what I'm going do," said the troubled seven-time Wimbledon champion after his defeat to Mirnyi.
The Stuttgart event was an eye opener for those who have followed Sampras's career ever since he jumped on to the world stage at the tender age of 19 by sweeping aside compatriot Andre Agassi to take the 1990 US Open title.
Last week, the former world number one showed only glimpses of his old form and looked rusty. He even lost his temper and narrowly escaped a code violation for hitting the ball off the court after a controversial line call in his second-round victory over Austria's Stefan Koubek.
For the "Mr Cool" of the tennis world to vent his anger so publicly was perhaps an indication of the inner turmoil he had been struggling with all season, especially since his surprise loss to Swiss Roger Federer in the fourth round at Wimbledon.
Losing to players he would once have dismissed with ease has proved frustrating for Sampras, as has the realisation that he is no longer the dominant force on the tour.
"Being so dominant over the years, it obviously gets a lot more difficult as the years go on to keep staying dominant," said Sampras, who topped the ranking for a record six consecutive years, after his defeat to Federer in July.
"It was hard being number one for all those years. It was hard staying there. Something has to give at some point."
Having bagged most of the records on offer, Sampras has little left to prove except perhaps to himself.
Reaching the age of 30 is a milestone for most sporting professionals, particularly as the dreaded 'retirement' word crops up more and more in media conferences.
Although Sampras has now gone 19 tournaments without winning a title he has dismissed talk of retirement throughout the year and believes he is a victim of his own high expectations.
"All this retirement talk has gotten a little bit carried away. I've got many, many years left. I'm going to contend for every Grand Slam for the rest of my career," he said during last month's U.S Open where he was runner-up to Australian Lleyton Hewitt.
"I've raised the bar so high and when I don't win titles every couple months I'm probably judged much tougher than anyone in the game."
Sampras's standards are indeed high as he has often achieved victories in situations that would have daunted lesser players.
While his epic win over Agassi at this year's US Open has been indelibly etched into memory, who could forget a physically ill Sampras - so ill that he vomited on court during the match - battling past Spaniard Alex Corretja in the quarter-finals of the 1996 US Open?
There was also the occasion when a tearful Sampras, struggling to come to terms with the illness of his then coach Tim Gullikson, who later died, overcame Jim Courier in a five-set thriller in the quarter-finals of the 1995 Australian Open.
But for Sampras, who married actress Bridgette Wilson last September, the time has perhaps come to start planning a life after tennis.
The American arrived in Stuttgart with high hopes of sealing a berth for the elite Masters Cup, where the top seven players in the ATP Champions Race and Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, who is set to qualify as a Grand Slam winner, will battle it out.
"I definitely want to try to go there, play against the best players in the world and end the season on a high note," Sampras said at the beginning of last week.
But instead the tournament broke his spirit and for now, at least, Sampras has turned his back on the sport which has been his life for the last 13 years.