“Todd played probably the best match he has ever played against me,” said Sampras, handling his setback with typical equanimity. “From 3-3 in the second set, he played like he was in the zone. I give him full credit, but any time I lose in a major, when I get back home I feel that no matter how well my opponent played I should have found a way to win. So part of me feels I let Todd play that well. Still, you have to accept the losses and move on.”
Sampras will play a full schedule of tournaments over the winter and through the spring, and plans to make his first appearance back on the ATP Tour at Memphis, Tennessee, later this month. But his next major event will be on the slow red clay of Roland Garros in Paris, where he will strive for the 12th time to win the only Grand Slam event he has not mastered. Since reaching his only semi-final in Paris five years ago, Sampras has not advanced past the third round.
The French Open is probably the toughest Slam to win,” he asserts, “because there aren’t just four guys that can win it – there are 40 guys that could. It is the biggest challenge I have with my tennis but I have decided to play more clay court tournaments leading up to the French and winning some tough matches at those events would definitely help me. “I know that it gets tougher as you get a little older. Each year that goes by that I don’t win the French Open is a year lost. But it is not the time for me to get nervous about this yet. I still feel I have a couple more good shots to possibly do it in Paris and I am feeling good about this year.”
No matter how successful he is in his quest to rule in Paris, Sampras seems certain to make his presence known again on the lawns of the All England Club, where he has performed so majestically across the years. He has captured the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament in seven of the last eight years. In the process, he has become more than an enduring champion; he is a Wimbledon institution. In late June and early July, he will seek his fifth Centre Court crown in a row. To be sure, Sampras will be eager to stretch his run of greatness where it matters the most. He will be the favourite, and would undoubtedly be exhilarated by another triumph on the grass.
He could be hard pressed, however, to move beyond the emotions he reached in breaking the Grand Slam title record last July in the fading light on Centre Court. He had played most of the fortnight through pain, receiving injections before his matches to treat tendinitis in his left shin, trying acupuncture, doing everything he could to overcome his circumstances. In the end, he prevailed 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 over Patrick Rafter in a stirring final after the Australian served with a commanding 4-1 lead in the second set tie-break. The battle concluded at 8:57pm, only minutes before darkness would have intervened.
Sampras recollects the drama of that event with clarity and sensitivity, saying: “It was really hard for me to play on injections, something I had never done before. That was the only way I could play the tournament. But after about an hour and 15 minutes, the injection would wear off. The morning after my matches I couldn’t even walk. Then I would get treatment before the next match and I wouldn’t feel the injury for a while. It was kind of an out-of-body experience to feel that.” His problems were compounded when long rain delays interrupted his appointment with Rafter. “That was an unbelievable scenario,” he recalls. “I had the injection before the match and the rains came and it wore off. I was talking to the doctor about what I should do. I just left it alone and had to deal with it and play through it. It is amazing what adrenalin can do for you.”
Cheering him on against Rafter were his parents, Sam and Georgia, along with his wife to be, Bridgette Wilson. They had never seen him win a Grand Slam event in person. “This is pretty much how I always wanted it to happen,” says Sampras. “I didn’t know where I might break the record, but it was fitting that it was Wimbledon, where I had done so well. When it got so dark , it was like a fairy-tale ending. It was a surreal feeling to look back on being a part of that. And to have my parents and future wife there was about as good as it is ever going to get for me as an athlete.” Having said that, Sampras still looks forward to the forthcoming Wimbledon. “I don’t know what it is about Wimbledon,” he reflects. “I don’t have the recipe on how I do it. But I just have this kind of inner belief that I am going to do it again. I have been fortunate to win Wimbledon so many times. I feel like I am the best on grass and the Centre Court has been my home for the last eight years. I would love to win a couple more Wimbledons and call it a career. I would also be happy if it ended tomorrow and I had my seven titles, which is more than I ever thought I’d have. I will just go in there this year with the same mindset. Hopefully, it happens again.”
Although Bridgette Sampras leads a busy life an actress, she travels with her husband to tournaments as much as possible. They were married on 30 September last year in Los Angeles. Sampras clearly values his wife’s presence at the most important tournaments. “I have been lucky,” he says of Bridgette, “that she is such a patient person. She has her own career but is great about mine. I feel like I need her everywhere, but especially at the majors where the tension is so high. When I first met her she didn’t know much about the game. She totally understands how focused I am on what I am doing when I am preparing for matches. We both support each other immensely. It would be great to win a couple more majors and share that with Bridgette, to enjoy the moment like we did at Wimbledon last year. I hope we can get that feeling back a couple more times this year.”
Sampras could distinguish himself as the only man ever to win at least one Grand Slam tournament for nine straight seasons if he manages to claim one of the game’s primary prizes this year. He is fully convinced that he can bring out his best again at the times of consequence. Andre Agassi’s triumph at the Australian Open has been a source of encouragement for Sampras, who says: “Andre’s winning the Australian goes to show that you can still do well when you are 30. Andre and I both know that when we get our games going we are still kind of the hot favourites to win Slams. As much as Gustavo Kuerten and Marat Safin are great players, and as well as they represent the sport, Andre and I can still make things happen. He proved that in Australia and I proved it at Wimbledon and a little at the US Open last year. We can still do it at 29 and 30, so I am going to work hard to finish my career in a positive way. I have no question in my mind that I can do that.
Original article appeared in The Independent Newspaper (London, England) February 12, 2001 Issue