THE GREAT CHAMPION LOSES IN THE FIRST ROUND
Poor Pete can't win one measly match
By Alix Ramsay
Special to tennisreporters.net
FROM ROLAND GARROS
– Pete Sampras losing in the first round of a Grand Slam, albeit Roland Garros, used to cause a huge wave of anxiety around the press room. Suddenly it was all hands to the pump time as stories were rewritten, headlines flammed up and editors got terribly overexcited. But when he stumbled out of the French last night, the 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 loser to Andrea Gaudenzi just after 9 p.m., there was no more than amurmur of disgruntlement amongst the hacks. The old boy losing was nothing new, but this time he had kept us waiting and ruined our dinner plans.
These days it is possible to count on the fingers of one hand those who believe Sampras can win anything, anywhere – and two of them are Pete himself and Bridgette, his wife. A total of 28 tournaments have come and gone since Sampras last won a title. Admittedly that last one was a big one – Wimbledon '00 – and it was his record breaking 13th Grand Slam victory, but that Sunday evening on Centre Court against Pat Rafter marked the end of Sampras' career as a champion.
These days there is an air of desperation in the Sampras camp. After a lifetime of consistency, he has hired and fired coaches with reckless abandon and changed his regime and his schedule to try and find a cure to what ails him. So far nothing has worked. His present mentor, Jose Higueras, has announced in public that he cannot work miracles and Sampras keeps muttering that there are no magic pills to solve his problems.
Just to rub it in, Higueras has pointed out, in no uncertain terms, that Sampras needs him far more than he needs Sampras. Higueras is in charge and the grand old man of Wimbledon had better do what he is told. It is not the sort of thing Mr. Sampras is used to hearing.
NO LONGER INVINCIBLE
What is clear is that Sampras has lost the knack of winning matches. He is fitter than any 30 year old with a dodgy back has a right to be and is no worse shape now than when he was dominating the circuit. But Sampras has lost his aura of invincibility and he seems unable to play without it.
So far this year he has won just 13 matches and reached just one final. As for the European red clay, he has not won a match on the main tour on the stuff this year despite the badgering and coaxing by Higueras and, as of this night, he looked utterly lost.
Gaudenzi has never managed to set the world alight. With only three tournament trophies to show for 12 years of hard graft, he is now No. 69 in the world pecking order. But for Gaudenzi to beat Sampras, whatever state the old man may be in, would always look good on the Italian's resume. He had everything to play for and nothing to lose.
As for Sampras, he looked as if a first-round match on clay was no more than a painful chore. If he won, he had it to do all over again on Wednesday against another unknown, one Jack Brasington, a qualifier from the United States and that seemed to be more than Sampras could bear. Over the past months Sampras has talked long and often about the technicalities of his game, about the motivation to win the major trophies once again. What has gone unsaid is the rising panic as he fails to get through more than a few rounds at the smaller events. Players who would once have fainted at the prospect of playing the mighty Sampras now see him as an easy target. And Sampras looks scared.
RUNNING OUT OF EXCUSES
He spoke of the "anxiety" he feels playing big points at Roland Garros, the one site where his record is less than spotless, but that anxiety is apparent wherever he goes these days. As he waited for the press corps to assemble in the interview room after his match, he stood for a few moments, leaning against the wall and propping his head against the plaster. He was tired, that was clear, but he had run out of excuses and ideas. He has worked his socks off on the practice courts and in the gym and still he cannot beat a journeyman in the first round. Where else is there for Sampras to go?
There is, of course, Wimbledon to look forward to but even there his moment seems to have passed. He lost in the fourth round to Roger Federer last year and suddenly, in five sets, Sampras' comfort blanket had been taken away. He was the greatest grass court player in the business, he had won Wimbledon when his form was good and when his form was awful; he had even won Wimbledon on one leg. But now a young, Swiss upstart had taught him a lesson and his confidence had been dealt another blow. The only real question left to answer about Sampras and his career is when he will stop putting himself through such torment. For those who have followed him with awe and admiration for the past 12 years, the hope is that his decision comes sooner rather than later – for all our sakes.
Alix Ramsay has been covering tennis for British national newspapers for the past 12 years. She was tennis correspondent of The Times for three years.