Sampras Plays Tour Guide to His Sweet Wimbledon 7
June 27, 2006
is feeling that little tug in his gut. He gets it once a year. Across a continent and an ocean, eight times zones away, Wimbledon is underway.
As one of the greatest tennis champions of all time, and one of the two greatest male achievers at the All England Club, he has his memories.
Seven times, he stood at Centre Court on the last day, held a trophy over his head, bowed to the English royalty and slipped quietly off to a side room, where they engraved his name on the trophy. While they did that, he called his parents in Palos Verdes.
Actually, the seventh time, the record-setting day, he didn't have to call. They were there, finally having overcome their nerves and anxiety at watching him play. That time, he climbed high into the stands and hugged them.
He is thinking about other things, such as the post-victory blur of time. You meet the press, take a shower, put on the tuxedo that the All England Club magically produces — how many sizes does it keep on hand? — go to the dinner party with members and dignitaries and make a speech.
"By the end, my speech was getting a little longer," Sampras jokes now.
Eventually, he says, you are sitting on the edge of your bed, too wired to sleep, trying to absorb it all.
Others have won at Wimbledon, but only one other man knew the feeling as often as Sampras, and the long white pants, long-sleeved shirt and tiny wooden racket of England's William Renshaw hint at an era gap. Renshaw, like Sampras a proponent of getting to the net often and fast, beat his twin brother, Ernest, for his seventh and final Wimbledon title in 1889, and died in 1904.
In 2001, exactly 112 years after Willie had taken out Ernie in the final set at love for that seventh title, Californian Sampras took to Centre Court for a fourth-round match against a 19-year-old from Switzerland. Roger Federer had promise, but so did lots of other 19-year-olds on the tour.
With all due respect to Willie Renshaw, Federer was playing the virtual owner of the real estate on which they stood. Boris Becker of Germany, a three-time champion and a seven-time finalist, once said of Wimbledon's Centre Court, "It used to be my house, but Sampras stole the keys."
Federer was also going against one of the more amazing statistical feats in sports, something of Wooden and DiMaggio proportions. When they began the match, Sampras' record at Wimbledon, starting with his first title in 1993, was 56-1.
What a run it was. Sampras, 34, and living in Beverly Hills, will take us through it.
'The final was tough, because it was Jim.'
Sampras beats Jim Courier, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3
: "Andre [Agassi] had won the year before, and the crowd was behind him in our quarterfinal. But I think he was feeling the pressure of that and I won in five. I beat Becker in the semis. I loved playing Boris. We had about the same game, serve and attack, but I always felt I did all that just a little bit better than he did.
"The final was tough, because it was Jim. We were good friends, he had talked me into going to Florida, showed me how to really train. But as I got closer to his No. 1, it got a little tougher. We didn't go out to dinner all the time, like we had. Tennis is different. In golf, you play the course. In tennis, you look across the net and there is Jim.
"Now, we're great again. We keep in touch."
'The hardest thing is to defend your title in a major.'
Sampras beats Goran Ivanisevic, 7-6, 7-6, 6-0
: "The hardest thing is to defend your title in a major. You have that big bull's-eye on you. Yup. Six, six and love. That was about the last time they used the real hard balls at Wimbledon, and Goran was hitting bullets. His serve was always unreturnable there, but I got enough back to win.
"I remember feeling, after that, like I was really starting to dominate. Life was good."
'I was the next-best thing to sliced bread.'
Sampras beats Becker, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2:
"It was funny. This was my third straight title, and things were now perceived differently. The first year, I wasn't interesting enough. The second, the tennis wasn't interesting enough. The third, I was the next-best thing to sliced bread."
I 'served and volleyed the best I ever had.'
Sampras beats Cedric Pioline, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4:
"I had lost to Richard Krajicek in the '96 quarterfinals and he had gone on to win. He had played a great match — it rained and it went over two days — and he started hitting the most important stroke you need to win at Wimbledon, a big second serve.
"So when I got to '97, I was ready. I lost serve only twice in the entire tournament and served and volleyed the best I ever had."
'It's OK to win ugly.'
Sampras beats Ivanisevic, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2
: "He was up a set and two set points, and I somehow squeaked it out. The crowd was really for him, and I understood that, because he had been so close so often. That's why, when he finally won [in 2001], I was happy for him.
"For me, in '98, it was like Johnny Miller said at the golf tournament the other day. It's OK to take out the four-wood. It's OK to win ugly."
'I played the best tennis I ever had.'
Sampras beats Agassi, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5
: "I got a break in the quarterfinals, when [Mark] Philippoussis slipped and fell, up a set, and had to default. You never want to win that way, but your body gets a break.
"When I got to the final against Andre, I played the best tennis I ever had. In a final, you rarely get into a zone because of nerves. But this time, I was in that zone.
"It got to 3-3 and love-40 on my serve and I won the game and never looked back.
"I remember even staying back a bit and playing some points from the baseline, just to kind of show people I had the whole package."
'He said I better just gut it out.'
Sampras beats Patrick Rafter, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2
. It is his record 13th title in a Grand Slam event:
"I'm still not sure how I got through this one. Early in the tournament, my shin started feeling sore. Apparently, I had used a pair of heavy running shoes and when they took an MRI, I had fluid on my shinbone.
"So the doctors told me the only way I might get through is to take a shot before each match. I could barely walk after I played, and I couldn't practice between matches or even warm up much. My routine was the same: play, limp off, ice it, sleep, have some acupuncture, ice it some more, then get a shot about 10 minutes before I went out.
"Rafter went up a set and 4-1 in the tiebreaker. I got through that, but then it rained and we had a delay. The shot was supposed to last for an hour, so I was hoping that it would keep raining and I could come back the next day. But about 8 o'clock, the sun came out and we had another hour of daylight. I asked the doctor if I could get another shot, and he said I better just gut it out.
"I remember at match point, being relieved, dead tired, and pretty choked up. Then I decided to find my parents and climb up to them. I decided, for a moment, to come out of my shell."
When Federer upset Sampras the next year, Sampras had not yet turned 30. But the struggle for that record-breaking 13th title had drained him. He floundered for the next two seasons, losing to players only their mothers had heard of, losing in the second round of the 2002 Wimbledon to a qualifier named George Bastl, and finding his only high moments in U.S. Open final losses in 2000 and 2001.
And that's where he was, the U.S. Open final, in September 2002, when he played his last masterpiece. Looking a step slower and less confident, he somehow beat Agassi in the final.
He never played again, spending much of the next year agonizing over the merits of plodding on or leaving Cinderella with her slipper on.
Now, he says he is happy being out of it. He is married to actress Bridgette Wilson, has two sons, all the money anybody could ever want, and a single-handicap golf game.
In the inane expression of the day, for Pete Sampras, it is all good.
But the itch will never be completely scratched. Courier has been after him to join his senior tour, and Sampras is considering playing some exhibitions. He even signed up to play a few TeamTennis matches, which is a little like having Rembrandt do your ceilings.
Coming up, there is breakfast at you-know-where, where some kid named Federer is going for his fourth consecutive title.
"He's a great player. I'm a fan," Sampras says.
And how much will he watch?
"Not a ton," he says. "It's hard, because I want to be there."
Bill Dwyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.