Though old fire gone, Sampras' hopes high

Mellowed former No. 1 breezes in U.S. Open start

Tennis

August 29, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The body is strong and, if the fates are willing, Pete Sampras says he has a shot at this U.S. Open and his 14th Grand Slam title.

Is it just talk?

Sampras hopes not. While Wimbledon has been the sweetheart tournament of his career, bringing him seven of his record 13 major titles, some of his most impressive performances have come here at Flushing Meadows, where he has won four times.

Who can forget the dramatic win over Alex Corretja during which Sampras threw up into a courtside flowerpot? Or last year's quarterfinal match against Andre Agassi - a four-set, all-tiebreaker thriller that Sampras won?

Even in the past two years, when Sampras has failed to win a single tournament or make it past the fourth round at any other Grand Slam, he has made it to the finals here.

Yesterday afternoon, the drama in Sampras' first-round match was not so great. Ashe Stadium was only half-full, but there was little doubt who was the favorite.

At times, the atmosphere was more like a football game than a tennis match, as a group of fans near the top of the bowl hung American flags over the porticos and chanted, "Let's go, Pete! Let's go!" and "Who let Pete Sampras out? Who? Who?"

Far below them, Sampras made quick work of Albert Portas. The Spaniard was dismissed, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4, in 1 hour, 33 minutes.

"I need to play my way," Sampras said. "I need to be as aggressive as I can, and I did that today. It was a good way to start."

Afterward, Sampras was in a friendly mood. He seemed pleased with the way he handled the swirling wind on the stadium court and with the way he attacked. And he said despite his title drought, which now dates to Wimbledon 2000, and his drop to the No. 17 seed here, he feels no additional pressure.

"I don't have much to prove here," he said. "I mean, I want to do well and see what I can do, but I don't feel any more pressure this year. You know, I've gone to the finals here seven times, so I don't feel like I ... I mean, there's pressure I put on myself to do well. This is what I play for, but I don't feel any different this year than last year."

But there are differences. Sampras, 32, is about to become a father. His wife, actress Bridgette Wilson, is due later this year and the prospect of fatherhood has taken the edge off his disposition and brings nothing but smiles.

Sampras was told Agassi, who became a dad for the first time last October, had said his son would have a full year or so of training over Sampras' child and would be in great shape for a tennis match.

Asked whether he would like to speak up for his family's pride, Sampras said: "I'd love to. He's got no shot. In 19, 20 years, my kid, if it's a boy - we don't know yet - will dominate. I mean, it's rhetorical, really."

Is it because of genetics or better coaching?

"Well, he's [Agassi's son Jaden] got pretty good genes on his side, doesn't he?" said Sampras, a reference to Agassi and his wife, former No. 1 Steffi Graf. But Sampras also said if he had a daughter, it would be a struggle to beat her, too.

"We'll see what the future holds for our kids," he said.

Since his marriage, Sept. 30, 2000, Sampras said he has achieved better balance in his life.

"Well, that's what life's all about," he said. "Marrying the woman of your dreams and having kids, having a great career. I feel like I've done that. Tennis is still a big focus, but it's not as consuming as it once was, though the most frustrating part at this point is handling the losing."

He is still putting long hours and a lot of focus into improving his game and said the results this year have "been pretty disappointing. I have nothing to show for it. But I can't dwell on it. I have to look at the future, not the past. I just have to believe in myself and hope I can do pretty well here."

He was No. 1 for so long, he said, he didn't want to do it anymore. After six straight years on top, he no longer wanted to look over his shoulder to see who was gaining on him.

"That focus is why I won so much," he said. "But I just kind of had enough of being No. 1. There was just too much pressure. After [winning] the 13th major, something definitely came out of me. I used to live and die with my wins and losses. I still get disappointed and frustrated, as I said, but when I hit 30, 31, I realized there's more to life than tennis.

"That being said, I'm still here. I still want to do well. That bar's still pretty high and I think I can still win a major. I want to win a major. Hopefully, here."

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