Gambill next U.S. pretender for throne?

23-year-old's match with Sampras today could provide answer

July 05, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England - Back in the late 1980s, there was nothing wrong with American men's tennis that couldn't be solved by the arrival of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier.

Now, the search is on for a new star to lead a new generation.

And it could lead to Jan-Michael Gambill.

Today, Gambill is due to meet Sampras in a Wimbledon's men's quarterfinal crammed with fascinating and unexpected matchups.

Unseeded and unassuming, Gambill has played scintillating grass-court tennis, using the sport's biggest event to score a career breakthrough. He has already taken out two seeds, No. 7 Lleyton Hewitt in the opening round and No. 9 Thomas Enqvist in the round of 16.

But now, the 23-year-old from Colbert, Wash., faces a master in his house, trying to unseat Sampras, the six-time Wimbledon champion bidding to make history by winning a 13th Grand Slam title.

"To tell you the truth, there's nothing to be overwhelmed about," Gambill said. "I love and enjoy playing in front of a big crowd. I've waited all my life to play on Centre Court. I'm just going to go out there and have a great time."

While a Gambill win today would mark the tournament's biggest upset, it's not out of his reach. In three previous meetings with Sampras on hard court, Gambill has won once and displayed power.

"Jan-Michael has had a great tournament," said Sampras, who seems to have shaken off the effects of a sore left foot and shin. "He's got a big serve, backs it up with good groundstrokes."

But like other young Americans on tour, Gambill has been forced to live in the shadow of his predecessors.

Sampras, Agassi, Courier, and, for a time, Michael Chang, dominated world tennis, filling a void that was left after John McEnroe flamed out and Jimmy Connors got old.

For a time in the late 1980s, there was concern that the Americans had lost their tennis know-how, and that the world stage would be dominated by cookie-cutter Swedes or Germans buoyed by Boris Becker.

It didn't happen, though. The Americans came through in the 1990s, and there's no reason why another generation can't produce another cast of stars.

"I think we're good players and I think we can do well," Gambill said of a young American group that includes Paul Goldstein and Justin Gimelstob.

"It's very tough to live up to what we have to live up to frankly," he said. "Pete [Sampras] has done unbelievably well. I think he's the best player of all time. That's very hard to live up to. Andre [Agassi] coming back and doing as well as he has is great. I can keep naming them."

Gambill said matching the exploits of the last generation "is not exactly my goal."

"I'd like to do that, but I'm going to really just look to keep improving my fundamentals and my game," he said.

The most captivating matchup of the quarterfinals pits the sizzling returns of Agassi against the booming serves of Mark Philippoussis.

Agassi escaped the second round with a five-set win over Todd Martin, but has regained his form and touch on grass.

"I needed to get through the first week," he said. "I needed to make sure that I didn't judge my tennis too harshly, just that I got through the matches, stayed positive and kept working through any potential kinks in my game."

Philippoussis has turned into the tournament's iron man, winning his four matches in a staggering 12 hours, 53 minutes.

With his punishing serves, Philippoussis is emerging as a favorite to claim the title.

"Well, when I have my rhythm, I'm serving big, I'm feeling confident," he said after ousting hometown favorite Tim Henman. "If there's anyone who can do anything, it's going to be my next opponent [Agassi]. He's the best returner in the world. He's got extremely quick hand-eye coordination. That's definitely where my serve will be tested."

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