Carrying a heavier load Sampras: The grass courts of Wimbledon helped catapult him to greatness, but this year the world's No. 1 player enters the tournament showing signs of wear at the age of 26.

June 21, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England -- Pete Sampras needs a break. He wants to put his tennis rackets in storage and get away from the game he has dominated for so long. He wants to "chill out." He wants to feel normal again after spending years on a jet-propelled tour that grinds out all notions of normality.

But there's no time off for the world's No. 1 player. There's no chance to recover and reload when opponents are lined up one after another like chess pieces advancing across a board. And there's no time to rest when history beckons.

So, Sampras will be back at Wimbledon tomorrow to try to defend the men's title that he has won four of the past five years.

Sampras is 26, prime time in most sports but often the age that marks the beginning of the end of tennis greatness. This is a sport in which the slide from brilliance to mediocrity can be brutally fast. And Sampras has appeared vulnerable, even on his beloved grass courts where his serves and textbook all-court game have routinely crushed opponents.

"There's no time for excuses," Sampras said last week during an international conference call in which his psyche was picked apart by questioners on two continents. "But I will say when this year is over, that I'm going to give myself time to get away."

Sampras needs the rest badly. After chasing the tennis immortals through most of his career, he has shown his mortal side this season.

He has a 25-8 match record, winning titles in Philadelphia and Atlanta, but absorbing bitter defeats at the Grand Slam events, which are the only championships that matter in Sampras' book. He's stuck on 10 Grand Slam titles, one behind Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, and two behind the all-time leader, Roy Emerson. And his bid to become the first player in the history of the rankings to finish on top for six consecutive years could be stopped by Marcelo Rios.

He's a marked man and knows it, talking about how "these guys are getting stronger and younger."

"It's not easy when you're trying to break records," he said.

Sampras isn't like most other athletes. He's one of the all-time greats, performing live, instead of on some grainy black-and-white film. In many ways he's like Michael Jordan, a man whose career he follows closely.

He would even like to set up a golf date with Jordan so that he can discuss sports and life to see how another great player "stayed motivated." He'd like to ask Jordan why after four or five championships he wanted to win another one with the Chicago Bulls.

"I mean, that's one person that I would love to pick his brain and get some advice, just see how he looked at it," Sampras said.

But for now, Sampras is stuck on the tour, the traveling circuit of drop shots and volleys.

He admitted he "felt a little burnt out going to Australia," and promptly lost to Karol Kucera in the Australian Open. And at the French Open, the only major he hasn't won, Sampras played miserably, losing in the second round to the previously unheralded Ramon Delgado in straight sets.

So, how is his year going?

"Mediocre at best," Sampras said. "It has obviously not been the year I was hoping for."

He added, "When you play at the standard that I've been playing mostly for the past four, five years, and you don't play well for a couple of months, people are questioning you and talking about the focus and the motivation."

Give Sampras credit, though. Other pampered players accustomed to winning and cashing checks worth millions of dollars might dodge the subject of burning out, might try to claim that all is well. But Sampras is a realist, agreeing with critics and opponents who have questioned his motivation and who have claimed that he has not raised the level of his game in tight situations.

"You know, it's probably pretty accurate," he said. "This year, it's not easy getting motivated each week I play. I've had some bad days."

Tennis player turned commentator John Lloyd has watched Sampras closely these past few weeks and has detected worrisome signs of the star's declining interest in the game.

"I was just a little disappointed with Pete Sampras at the French, to put it mildly," Lloyd said. "I was disappointed with his attitude there, with his quotes there that he wasn't obsessed with winning the French. If I had won the Grand Slam titles he had won and the French was missing from my collection, I would spend two months on the clay.

"I think he is going through just a period of readjustment," Lloyd added. "I think it's too early to write him off."

Martina Navratilova, another tennis great who can identify with Sampras' plight, sees the all-too-familiar signs of tennis burnout.

"His quotes are irregular," she said. "He goes in and out. His performances are in and out, too."

Sampras said he realizes that with each defeat, foes gain confidence that they can knock off the No. 1 player.

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