Sampras knocked down, not out, by recent events
August 6, 2002
Pete Sampras has a record 13 Grand Slam titles, a wife and this just in - a child on the way. In short, he has happiness.
He also has more motivation than most mortals can handle.
"This is by far the toughest challenge I've had to go through in my career," Sampras said Sunday. "I'm just trying to come back. It's something I've never had to do."
Sampras will turn 31 on Sunday, and he hasn't won a tournament in 25 months. He was embarrassed by qualifier George Bastl in the second round at Wimbledon, and tennis great Boris Becker predicted he wouldn't be back. Sampras' ranking has dropped to 15th, and he could finish the year out of the top 10 for the first time since the 1980s.
This year alone, Sampras split with his agent, terminated his sponsorship with Nike and changed coaches three times.
The end result: Lots of perspective and a new sense of purpose.
Preparing for the Western & Southern Financial Masters, Sampras appeared relaxed and resolute Sunday when he sat down with the Enquirer.
"That (Wimbledon exit) was probably one of the lowest points I think I've been in many years," Sampras said. "Getting home and going through it, I was very disappointed not only about Wimbledon but about the whole year.
"I talked to (coach) Paul (Annacone), and he said some things that inspired me. He said, "You're in a position for something you've never had to do, and that's have a comeback.' It kind of got me excited to go out and start playing well."
Annacone had been his coach the past six years. But Sampras replaced him
after last year with Tom Gullikson, whose twin brother, Tim, Sampras' pre-Annacone
coach, died of brain cancer in 1996. After
a short period, he turned to Jose Higueras, but Higueras couldn't travel with Sampras full-time.
After Wimbledon, Sampras returned to Annacone.
"He knows me better than anyone when it comes to tennis," Sampras said. "It's nice to get back to some stability."
Stability hasn't yet surfaced on the court. Sampras is 19-15 this year, and is winless in 31 events since claiming his seventh Wimbledon crown in July 2000.
Sampras admits to feeling vulnerable. During his Wimbledon loss last month, he pulled out an inspirational letter from his wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, and read it during changeovers.
"He had sunk into himself at the end of the match," Becker said at Wimbledon. "That is the end of Pete. . . . He will be in a state of turmoil because he knows his career is close to the end."
Sampras insisted retirement isn't imminent. He doesn't give a timetable, suggesting it could be a year from now, or two, or three.
In the meantime, Sampras said it's hard getting used to losing.
"When I'm playing, it's the same mentality, same drive, same focus," he said. "Obviously, my abilities, I'm not as dominant as I was five years ago. Still, when I step out there against anyone in the game today, I expect myself to win."
Sampras said he has more balance in his personal life. What he also has is unfortunate timing.
John McEnroe had predicted marriage was "probably going to ruin Pete's tennis," and unfortunately, Sampras doesn't have a title to refute that.
"That's not fair to anyone, especially to (Bridgette)," Sampras said. "I kind of hit a crossroad after (record-setting Slam No.) 13 - kind of, "Where do I go from here?' I just happened to get married three months later.
"Don't blame my wife or my marriage. Blame me for not playing well or doing the things I should be doing on the court. I didn't appreciate (the criticism) for her sake. It bothered her."
The public has rallied behind Sampras. Though his workmanlike style effected indifference from fans earlier in his career, those fans have swung solidly in his favor and given him stirring ovations.
Sampras has noticed, and appreciated.
"It's been a good feeling," he said. "It's a chilling feeling at times when you can step out of what you're doing and appreciate the support, look into the stands and make a little eye contact, raise my hat up a little bit. I've never done that before. "It happens to a lot of people who get older, you start touching the hearts of tennis fans."