In Sampras' Sight
December 20, 2001
Speaking with Pete Sampras on a recent afternoon in early December, it was readily apparent to me that he is a singularly unshakable champion who will not be swayed by disparaging notices in the media.As he reflected on 2001 and looked ahead to 2002, he was steadfast in his convictions about himself and his chances to get back on the ascendancy, bolstered by his inspiring run to the final of the U.S. Open, and determined to garner more major titles and move beyond his record collection of 13 Grand Slam tournament crowns. At 30, Sampras is clearly not resting on his laurels as probably the best player ever to pick up a racquet.
The critics came down on him hard for not capturing one of the Big Four in 2001, the first year since 1992 that he had not secured a major. The fact remains that Bjorn Borg (1974-81) is the only man other than Sampras to have taken at least one of the premier prizes for eight consecutive years. Furthermore, Sampras was one match away from breaking that tie and setting yet another record. Yet skeptics harp on the fact that he has not won a tournament of any type since Wimbledon of 2000. But wasn't he entitled to an ungratifying 2001 after celebrating so many brilliant seasons? In any event, he looks forward to the challenges ahead.
"I just have this feeling in me", he says, "that I am still the best player in the world. I really walk out there thinking I am a better player than the other guy. Maybe the enthusiasm isn't there week in and week out. But when it comes to a major and I step out there against anyone, I am not going to guarantee that I will win every match, but in my mind, when I'm on and playing well, I still feel like I am it.""I just have this feeling in me that I am still the best player in the world. I really walk out there thinking I am a better player than the other guy. "
That comment is evidence of his immense pride. But beyond his remarkable sense of self, Sampras has taken some concrete measures to give himself the best possible chance to make good on his aspirations. He has turned to Tom Gullikson as his new coach. Gullikson will take over from Paul Annacone, who worked with Sampras from 1995-2001 and helped Pete to win eight of his 13 Grand Slam titles. Ironically, Annacone began his coaching role with Sampras at the 1995 Australian Open, when Tim Gullikson was sent home with brain tumors. Tim, who passed away in 1996, had guided Sampras superbly since 1992.
There are other ironies. Sampras had originally wanted Tom to coach him, but Tom had other commitments and recommended Tim. Tom later became director of coaching, USA Tennis Player Development but was released from his contract for that post several months ago. Now Annacone is moving on to the USTA himself as Managing Director, USA Tennis High Performance.
As Sampras points out, "With Paul and myself, it just ran its course. You feel it when you are with someone for so long in an individual sport. It is human nature that you feel like you need new energy but all of this was amicable. Paul did a great job. I told Paul where I was at and he understood. It is tough because he is a good friend and we had a lot of good years working together. But Tom knows my game well. He is also a good friend and hopefully will help me out. Professionally, this is the best thing for me to do."
Gullikson will undoubtedly step seamlessly into his new position and will know precisely how to handle the situation. He was Davis Cup captain from 1994-99 and Sampras almost single-handedly drove the Americans past Russia in the 1995 final. The relationship should thrive from the outset. Gullikson will bring a new zest to an old partnership. In turn, Sampras will rekindle his Davis Cup career in 2002. While he has often declined to participate because of the ludicrous scheduling of the international team competition, it is too easily forgotten that Sampras has played on two victorious teams in 1992 and 1995 and has represented the U.S. in no less than seven different years including 1999 and 2000. But somehow, his absences have overshadowed his contributions, which have been considerable.
Explaining why he will be back, Sampras says, "In the last couple of years, I played in certain tournaments and asked myself, 'What am I doing here?' In Davis Cup you are playing for your country and your teammates and it has a Grand Slam type of feel to it. You dig deep and it really means something and I need to feel that more as I get older. That is why I decided to commit for Davis Cup in 2002. It also helps that the first tie (against the Slovak Republic in February), and possibly the second, will be in the U.S."
American tennis fans will be exhilarated by the prospect of Sampras joining forces with the surging Andy Roddick as they represent the U.S. Sampras is buoyed by that notion as well.
"From a tennis standpoint," he says, "Andy is going to get better and better. And I still think I can go out and beat all of these guys, so we can, without question, win the Cup again. That is our goal. In Andy I have got a young, strong teammate that can serve hard and has a big game. I don't see why he and I can't play doubles together if needed. Andy is a lot more energetic than I am and has a different temperament and maybe in some way we can feed off each other."
Davis Cup will inevitably bring out the sparkle in Sampras and rouse him to raise his game when it counts in 2002. But reaching peak efficiency in the places of consequence will depend largely on the state of his serving arm. For the past four to five years, he would find himself troubled periodically by a dead arm, which made serving an ordeal. He had to close his 2001 campaign down early in Stuttgart because of that nagging problem, and was forced to take himself out of the running for the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Sydney for the top eight competitors of the year. He had qualified for that event the previous 11 years, and would surely have made it back there again.
After serving with nowhere near his customary power in a quarterfinal loss in Stuttgart to Max Mirnyi, Sampras came home to address the issue. As he explains, "I just couldn't serve in Stuttgart. The arm was dead and painful and I was waking up at six in the morning with it throbbing. I realized I needed to take this more seriously. I found out I had to treat the arm and shoulder like a separate entity. So I went to Dodger Stadium and saw the L.A. Dodgers trainer/mechanic who deals only with pitchers and their arms. I discovered I had a little deficiency in my rotator cuff. So I got on a routine of arm exercises to get my rotator cuff stronger. My arm feels fine but it is obviously different when you are playing a lot of matches. I need to be able to serve as hard as I want for as long as I want. I string my racquets close to 80 pounds because I like the feel of it, and that is not great for the arm. But I am glad I saw that trainer."
The arm/shoulder bothered Sampras at other times in other places across 2001, even right before and during the U.S. Open. But the effort he made in the last Grand Slam event of the season was nothing short of stupendous. In an unprecedented string of victories, he upended the three men who had taken over the Open since Sampras last captured the title in 1996. In succession, Sampras removed 1997-98 victor Patrick Rafter, 1999 winner Andre Agassi, and 2000 champion Marat Safin. Although he was drained in a straight-set loss to Lleyton Hewitt in the final, the tournament was largely positive for the American as he made a substantial statement to his detractors who did not believe he could play any longer at that level.
As Sampras asserts, "I felt I got possibly the toughest draw I've ever had as a professional but I played some great tennis and showed the level of tennis I am capable of playing. I just ran into an emotional lull in the final but it ended in a pretty positive way for me. It was a bit of a triumph because of the draw."
The ultimate moment for Sampras during that fortnight was his 6-7(7), 7-6(2), 7-6(2), 7-6(5) victory over Agassi. Not only was this his third triumph without a loss against Agassi at the Open, he also beat his chief rival in the 1990 and 1995 finals, but he also ended a three-match losing streak against his countryman over the last two years. Most importantly, he prevailed in the highest quality contest of their respective careers.
As Sampras assesses, "We both didn't give an inch for three-and-a-half hours. I saw some tapes of it and it really did live up to what I felt out there. The ovation the crowd gave us at 6-6 in the fourth set-that has never happened to me. I honestly could have walked out of there had I lost in four or five sets and I would have felt pretty good because I had played so well. It was one of those matches where you are happy to have been a part of it. I can say that now at age 30 versus 20, which shows that things change. The best I have ever played against Andre was probably that  Wimbledon final and our  Open final when we were No. 1 and 2 in the world was very special, but as a match I really believe this one topped them all."
And yet, Sampras lost his second U.S. Open final in a row as a highly charged Hewitt defeated him without the loss of a set, just as Safin had done the year before. A strong case can be made that Sampras has been a primary victim of the absurd U.S. Open schedule on both occasions, and perhaps three times altogether. His record in Wimbledon finals is 7-0. He has won two of three Australian Open finals. But now he stands at 4-3 in finals at Flushing Meadows. All of the other major events give the men a day off between the semifinals and the final; only the Open does not grant that courtesy to the players. Sampras has made no excuses about these last two Open defeats, but veteran followers of his career knew he was not up to his normal standards on either occasion.
A sportsman of the highest order, he continues to give his conquerors the credit they deserve. Speaking of the Hewitt match, he says, "Lleyton is a great returner and played an unbelievable match against me as did Safin the year before. Both times I was trying hard but I felt like I was going uphill while they were just getting better. But having a day off I really feel I could have won a couple more Opens. I believe I could be sitting here with six or seven Opens instead of four. I give Lleyton all the credit in the world and Safin as well."
Why can't the USTA alter its policy and play a Monday night final at the end? What good reason is there for not making a change to benefit the players? "I have complained about it for many years," says Sampras. "I think the level of tennis would be better for everybody if we had a day off. Unfortunately it comes down to money with the CBS [television] deal. They love all those matches on Saturday and the tradition of it. I would really love to have that day off. This year it would have been nice to give my arm?which was a little fatigued?rest for another day. But I don't think the schedule will change while I am still playing."
In any case, two days after Sampras lost that Open meeting with Hewitt, the World Trade Center tragedy struck. With that somber and emphatic event and the growing reality of terrorism, Sampras recognized that his life and his country had been sweepingly altered in almost unimaginable ways. As he reflects now, "Tuesday after the U.S. Open, everything changed for all of us, so it put things in perspective. Sports is entertainment and we need it, but I recognized how can we make a big deal out of sports. Sports is pretty insignificant in the whole scheme of life."
As the next few months passed, Sampras sorted through his perceptions and realized, "Tennis is my job and I have been doing it since I was seven. As time goes on, you rebound. Now I think we are all doing fine. We just need to be a little more aware and more patient about traveling. Life will be different in this country. A little bit of our soul was cut into, but [terrorism] is not going to beat us. In a lot of ways it took a major tragedy for us to see the true color of the American people, how we are one. And it was great to see the New York firefighters coming through as real heroes that we have in the U.S. We are a proud people and we stick together in times of need.""[When] the day that something like that happens and it surprises me who I beat and how I beat them, that is the day I won't be playing. I am my own biggest critic and know what I need to do."
And yet, while the world at large remains in the forefront of his mind, Sampras knows he must tend to his own business. He continues to demand greatness from himself, and was almost insulted by the reaction to his spirited journey at the U.S. Open. By then, the skeptics were writing him off completely, speculating about imminent retirement.
"That was taking it too far," he says. "I don't mind being criticized when I am not playing well. But saying that I was going to be done in six months bothered me. And I really felt that during the Open, everybody was thinking, 'What a surprise this is for Pete.' And that really annoyed me because the day that something like that happens and it surprises me who I beat and how I beat them, that is the day I won't be playing. I am my own biggest critic and know what I need to do."
With all of that premature conjecture about retirement, Sampras deliberately looked far into the future when asked how long he planned to keep playing. He really doesn't know. As he explains, "It's funny because I was so annoyed with all of that retirement talk that I just said, 'I am playing five more years.' But I look at it this way: I have spent a lot of time in the weight room and a lot of time on the track. I feel like I am very fit. I need to play a ton of matches and I am going down to Australia early to play Adelaide. So I am going to give this one hard push to try to end things strong on my terms. I will make that push next year and then see about the years after."
Heading into 2001, Sampras had made a similar commitment to his training. "That was why this year was frustrating," he says. "I put in so much time at the UCLA track doing 400s and 300s and running on the beach and lifting weights. In getting ready for next year, I have been training and running six days a week with Moose [trainer Brett Stephens] and have really been taking it to the next level. But I know that nothing gets you in better shape than actually playing matches. No matter how much training I do, I will walk out in Adelaide and play a couple of tough matches, and will be sore. But you need that combination of being able to play more matches while maintaining the training. Hopefully, those two things will gel and I will have a good year."
One reason why he could well have a big year in 2002 is the growing self-assurance he gains from moving through the second year of marriage. His wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, has provided equanimity on a level he may never have known before. As Sampras expresses it, "She has given me a lot of support, and you can't put a price tag on that. She knows the commitment I put into the sport and the stresses and the pressures. She is very patient and is always there for me. Being involved in a sport, especially an individual sport, is consuming. It is about you and she is very understanding about how I have to eat at certain times and sleep at certain times. Tennis is my life and while it may not be what it was ten years ago, it is still a big priority. I used to eat, sleep and breathe tennis but now I am not quite so consumed and it has made me a happier person. I definitely have had sleepless nights on the road but now it is nice to relax and enjoy that time with someone I love.""Tennis is my life and while it may not be what it was ten years ago, it is still a big priority."
When will he be ready to start having children? "Definitely in the near future," he responds. "It could be in the next year or couple of years. I have to make sure that Andre's son doesn't get too much older so they can compete against each other."
As for his immediate goals, Sampras wants more than anything else to reassert himself when it matters the most. "For me in the coming year," he says, "it is not necessarily about proving the critics wrong. It is really that I am just trying to add on to the 13 majors and trying to give myself a consistent year, to play well all year which will help me do better at the Slams. And being part of the Davis Cup will help the overall picture for me."
In turn, he will almost inevitably be revitalized after an arduous 2001. In his abbreviated, 15 tournament season, he had much misfortune, and finished the year ranked No. 10 in the world. Not since 1991 had he ended a year outside the top three. But the fact remained that he finished in the top ten for the 12th year in a row, which was no small feat. And now he has all the incentive in the world to recover his winning ways. He is going to capture one of the major events in 2002.
As we concluded the interview, I asked Pete Sampras what he will miss the most about being a champion when he is finished with competitive tennis. He did not hesitate to answer, "I would say playing in the Super Bowl of tennis. And to me that is the final of Wimbledon, the feeling of just walking out there and the whole world is watching. I will really miss Wimbledon. I will miss the U.S. Open and the other majors but when I play my last match at Wimbledon, that is when I will feel like I am really leaving the game."