This time, Sampras appears set to serve as confident winner U.S. Open champ returns to No. 1

September 14, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- He is called "Sweet Pete," a nickname bestowed upon him years ago by former best friend and current rival Jim Courier when they were playing junior tennis together. And now, by virtue of his victories this July at Wimbledon and Sunday at the U.S. Open, Pete Sampras can be called something else.

The best tennis player in the world.

It is a label he carries with much more confidence than he did earlier this year, when the points on the Association of Tennis Professionals computer added up, but he had nothing much else to show for it, nothing to back up his first Open title three years ago. But then again, at 22, Sampras carries himself with a lot more confidence than he did when he became the youngest man to win the Open.

"In 1990, my game wasn't really quite developed when I won here,"Sampras said an hour or so after defeating Frenchman Cedric Pioline, the 15th seed, in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 final. "It came so fast and so easy. I just had two hot weeks, and, for the next six or eight months, I really kind of struggled on and off the courts."

Sampras, who was born in Washington and grew up in Southern California, wasn't ready for his sudden celebrity. Endorsement offers flew in faster than one of his booming serves. Television appearances, including sitting on the couch talking to Johnny, portrayed Sampras the way he was: an introverted young man terribly uncomfortable with the spotlight.

The post-Open blur, as well as a recurring case of shin splints, affected his tennis, as well. Though he managed to win five tournaments in 1991 and finish No. 5 in the rankings, Sampras JTC missed the Australian Open, lost in the second round at the French Open and Wimbledon, then was knocked out in the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadow.

"I won the Open, and immediately I was recognized all over the world," said Sampras, who officially regained the No. 1 ranking yesterday by displacing Courier, probably for the rest of the year. "I really wasn't used to it, and I didn't enjoy it. But I realized that's the way it was going to be.

"It is part of the job. The more success, more times you win, the more difficult it is going to be off the court. I just kind of kept on going at it. Hanging in there. I was going through some tough losses. I believed in my game, I believed in myself and I just got back to it."

Compounding Sampras' problems back then was his split with longtime coach Pete Fischer. Fischer had worked with Sampras since he was 7, and there were some in the tennis community apparently who felt this burgeoning talent needed a coach more familiar with the life that is equal parts rock star and athlete.

Tim Gullikson, who had been more famous for being half of a doubles team with twin brother, Tom, than as a journeyman in more than a decade on the tour, started hitting with Sampras late in 1991 and began coaching him a few months later. Having coached Martina Navratilova, Gullikson saw it is an opportunity to work with a player whose emotional baggage wasn't going to get in the way of his ability.

"He had a real good background in the game, real solid fundamentals," Gullikson said as he rushed around the grounds of the National Tennis Center on Sunday night, accepting congratulations for Sampras' victory. "He just had really great tools."

But Sampras had one significant insecurity: playing on clay. Before he and Gullikson signed an agreement, Sampras already had committed to eight European clay-court tournaments. And before Sampras had a chance to change his mind, Gullikson encouraged him to go and not worry about the results.

"He had a huge impact on my results," said Sampras, who wound up winning his first clay-court tournament, in Kitzbuhel, Austria, last year. "He really emphasized playing well on clay and mentally staying in there. Tim was a smart player in his day, and that was something I was lacking. My shot selection was a bit suspect, and he kind of sharpened me up a little bit."

It was all part of Sampras' pursuit of becoming the complete all-court player. Just as much as he tried to emulate former Australian great Rod Laver in the way he acted during a match, Sampras also wanted to have the ability to win on any surface, to give himself the opportunity to win a career Grand Slam, if not a single-season Slam.

His performance this year has shown that Sampras is getting closer to fulfilling his goal. Aside from becoming the first American male to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year since John McEnroe in 1984, he also got farther in the Australian Open (semifinals, losing to Stefan Edberg) and French Open (quarterfinals, losing to subsequent champion Sergi Bruguera) than he had before.

"I think a lot of players never really try to fulfill their potential, and they limit themselves mentally," Gullikson said. "They're beaten before they even start a tournament on a surface they don't like."

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