A Cold, Hard Look at Pete Sampras:

Number One at the Crossroads

By Ed Toombs
February 1998
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 Before the recent Australian Open, the Aussie press reported that it was difficult even to lay bets on Pete Sampras. The world number one was that heavy a favourite.

 Yet Sampras was bounced from the tournament in the quarterfinals by the unseeded Karol Kucera, surprisingly easily, in four sets. The pundits expressed shock. But should Pete's relatively hasty elimination have been a surprise? And is it now a genuine possibility that Petr Korda, Patrick Rafter, Jonas Björkman or another contender could put an end to Sweet Pete's almost uninterrupted six-year reign as the king of men's tennis?

 During the last twelve months, signs are mounting  which suggest that the Sampras era could be coming to a close. Counting the recently-concluded Australian Open, Sampras has not reached the semifinals of three of his last four Grand Slams. This is surely unacceptable for a man who claims to build his year around tennis' four major tournaments, and who is regarded by some as the greatest player of all time.

 It is no longer inconceivable that Sampras, who has won 10 Grand Slam singles crowns, may never equal Roy Emerson's all-time record of 12. If Pete is going to break it, he will perhaps have to do so (to paraphrase William Blake) on England's pleasant grass courts green.

Obstacle 1: Anemia

 Pete Sampras has a medical condition called "thalassemia minor", a mild form of anemia found principally in people of Meditarranean extraction (Sampras is of Greek parentage). Strangely, this fact is not known by many tennis fans, although Pete admitted to his anemia in a 1997 Sports Illustrated profile. But while the US media maintain an eerie silence about this topic, journalists in other nations have no such reluctance to raise the issue.

 Thalassemia minor is not a severe affliction. Medical authorities state that an average couch potato would usually not even be aware of having this form of anemia. But when a world-class athlete pushes himself to the limit in hot weather or long matches, it can sap his resistance. And I need not catalogue the periodic collapses by Sampras in such conditions.

 One wonders whether the effects of Pete's anemia will be more apparent from now to the end of his career. I admit this is sheer speculation. But it is no secret that as athletes approach 30 years of age -- Sampras is 26 -- they no longer possess the physical resistance they once did.

Obstacle 2: Stress of life at the top

 Pete Sampras deserves great credit for having dominated his sport for the better part of six years. Courier, Wilander and Edberg -- to name just a few -- have spoken of the inherent difficulty of maintaining the number one position for a long period of time.

 There is, of course, the tremendous challenge of refining one's technique and strategy in order to fend off a horde of challengers who are always trying to find new ways to destabilize the top gun's game.

 But the psychological demands of being number one are perhaps more taxing than the technical ones. Constantly being expected to win; continually having to stare down new and increasingly audacious challengers; sacrificing one's personal life for the regime of training and competiton demanded of a top player... the stresses of life at the top are enormous.

 Pete has never been immune to the effects of stress, of course. His recurring stomach problems, such as the ones that diminished him at the 1992 US Open final against Edberg or the 1993 Lipton final against Agassi, have often been described as a stress reaction.

 But in recent months, his on-court demeanor has been increasingly testy, and has not always conformed to the "gentleman Pete" image he has enjoyed through most of his career. At the Paris Open last fall (a tournament that he won), Sampras appeared agitated at times, tossing his racquet and even incurring a warning for an audible obscenity. After his elimination at the 1998 Australian Open, he petulantly refused to shake the umpire's hand after the match, even though he later admitted that the umpire's decisions were not responsible for his defeat.

 These are, of course, far from the obscene outbursts of the likes of Andre Agassi or Ilie Nastase. Still, the cool, teflon-like exterior Sampras has shown in the past appears to be wearing thin.

Obstacle 3: Physical degeneration

 It was remarkable that Sampras was able to retain the number one spot in 1997, given the string of injuries he endured. A wrist problem prevented him from participating in springtime tournaments in
Asia; a sore shoulder and upper arm forced him to withdraw from several events in the second half of the season, and almost prevented him from completing the Paris Open in the fall; and a calf injury brought his season to a crashing halt at the season-ending Davis Cup final in Sweden.

 Sampras suggested after the Davis Cup injury that the accumulation of many long seasons of play -- remember he has been near or at the top of his sport for eight years -- which are starting to take a toll on his body and give rise to increasingly numerous injuries.

 Pete's solution to this situation is to play even fewer tournaments this year than he did in 1997, when his schedule was already considerably lighter than that of other top five players such as Bjorkman and Rafter. Reportedly, eliminating Davis Cup competition completely from his calendar is another possibility that Sampras is considering.
 Logical enough: but can an underprepared Sampras fight off challenges from fitter opponents who are hardened by match play in crucial preparatory tournaments? One is given cause to wonder.

Obstacle 4: Complacency and disconnectedness from tennis reality

 Does Pete Sampras still have the drive and involvement to stay at the top? As heretical as the question may sound, it begs to be asked.

 Recent declarations by Pete Sampras have been baffling and contradictory. When he wins, he often speaks of the psychological advantages of being number one. Opponents are in awe or overly nervous when they face him, he says, offering him gift points and games. But when Sampras loses, his conquering opponent is no longer described as a trembling victim-in-waiting, but as a fearless matador with nothing to lose. Consider Pete's comments following the loss to Kucera in Melbourne: "He played the match of his life. I just ran into a hot player. It must be easy to play me because these guys have nothing to lose, just swing away. I told myself that something would break down in his game, but nothing did."

 Which is the case? Is being number one a psychological advantage which reduces his adversary to easy prey? Or is it a curse, that makes the opponent puff out his chest and surpass himself? More significantly: has Pete become unsure about his abilities to the point where he passively expects his reputation either to induce a strong opponent to underachieve, or to create a fearless adversary who will play the "match of his life" and blow him away?

 This bizarre ambivalence is accompanied by a sometimes shocking lack of awareness of the abilities of his opponents. Take for example the case of Karol Kucera. After being upset by the rising Slovak star in Melbourne last month, Sampras made this astonishing comment: "I remember playing him two years ago at Wimbledon. His serve was pretty inconsistent and he made a lot of double faults. I would never have thought he would serve so well today."

 Yet, the great improvement of Kucera over the last two years is not a secret. He had a superb indoor campaign last year, and won the Hopman Cup and the Sydney tournament in the weeks prior to the Australian Open. He was arguably the hottest player on tour. And the key to Kucera's rapid progression has been evident: his improved serve.

  I had watched the Wimbledon match alluded to by Sampras two years ago on television, and it is true that the Slovak displayed a weak serve at that time. But I also had the chance to see a more recent version of Kucera, last fall during the Canada-Slovakia Davis Cup tie. The first thing I noticed was how much more potent and accurate Kucera's serve had become, allowing him to power 14 aces past Daniel Nestor, a doubles specialist who normally returns serve well.

 I was so impressed that the first question I asked Kucera after the match was about his new and improved service. Kucera pointed out that he has gotten stronger and fitter over the last year, and has especially worked on beefing up his serve. "Itís very important," he said, "especially on this surface (carpet). I am going for aces and hitting my second serves harder."

 Has Pete Sampras become so complacent, or so disconnected from tennis reality, that he and his coach were totally unprepared for such obvious improvements made by one of the hottest players on tour? And what does this say about his readiness to face similar challenges in the future?
 Pete Sampras is one of the premier talents in tennis history, and if anyone is capable of rising to the challenges now facing him, it is he. But in light of his increasingly spotty performances in big matches, one is permitted to wonder if his long reign is approaching the end.

 Does he have still have the physical and psychological resilience, the mental focus and concentration, and the committment and involvement that will allow him to finish 1998 as number one for the sixth consecutive year? Will he ever win another Grand Slam away from the conditions that now favour him most, the cool weather, yielding grass and short points of the lawns of Wimbledon?

 Father Time, as always, will provide the answer.

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