Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Obituary: Tim Gullikson

As a player, he was only modestly successful. As a coach, he was highly regarded and considerably more accomplished. But the tennis community will mourn the death of Tim Gullikson above and beyond his professional pursuits because he was a man of uncommon decency.

Gullikson fought hard on the court to realise his own goals and took great pride in his ability to help others achieve their objectives, but all of that paled in comparison with the staunch character he revealed all across the globe. He was immensely admired in his field as a fellow who unfailingly displayed integrity, as a man who went about his business in a completely straightforward manner, refusing to cut corners or compromise his principles.

As a competitor, Gullikson was victorious in four tournaments back in 1977 and 1978, although he never had the distinction of becoming a member of the American top ten during his career. He did, however, come up with some very big wins on his best afternoons, most notably toppling John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1979.

Gullikson was approaching the zenith of his talent that year and was seeded No 15 at the All England Club. He collided with the second- seeded McEnroe in the fourth round on the infamous Court 2, a location known to be unkind to many of the favourites over the years. In any case, Gullikson put his workmanlike serve-and-volley style to ex- cellent use in dismantling the three time future singles title-holder 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 to reach the quarter-finals, losing in the last eight to the formidable Roscoe Tanner.

Four years later, Gullikson celebrated another remarkable moment at Wimbledon when he reached the 1983 doubles final on Centre court with his twin brother Tom, now the captain of the United States Davis Cup team. The brothers Gullikson were ousted in straight sets by the towering team of John McEnroe and countryman Peter Fleming. Nevertheless, it must have been some con- solation to the Gulliksons that they upset the second seeded pair of Steve Denton and Kevin Curren in the semifinals.

Gullikson's credentials in doubles surpassed his exploits on his own. Altogether, he appeared in no fewer than 29 finals in the 1970s and 1980s, winning 16 titles in the process. The Gullikson brothers were ranked in the US top ten for four consecutive years (1982-85), finishing No 4 for 1982 and 1983 and rising to No 3 in 1985. They were a solid and resourceful partnership with a strong strategic sense.

But by 1986 Gullikson had put his racket aside and moved into a new and suitable role as a coach. He became coach for the leading American players Aaron Krickstein and Mary Joe Fernandez. He guided Martina Navratilova through the 1988 season and restructured her game in some subtle yet significant ways. But his most rewarding coaching assignment came about in 1992 when he started working with the gifted but as yet unpolished Pete Sampras. The two Americans established an immediate rapport and Sampras responded exceedingly well to Gullikson's sound and appropriately simple advice.

As Gullikson once said of Sampras: "Pete is very coachable because he is a very logical guy with a very open attitude, very much his own man but still very adaptable. He is the type of player that if you work on things six months past and he sees they have worked, six months later he will be doing those things again. We approach the game in a similar way so I don't make it more than it is because in reality it is not that compli- cated. He is willing to listen to people he feels make sense. It is working really well for both of us."

Gullikson was thoroughly delighted when Sampras elevated his game so dramatically during their time together. He helped Sampras to achieve the No 1 world ranking for the first time in April 1993 and was exhilarated as Sampras took over as the game's dominant player and established himself as one of the all-time greats. It seemed entirely possible that Gullikson would be Sampras's coach for a decade. They got along remarkably well. They both looked to the long term. They shared the same goals. But then in the autumn of 1994 it was apparent that something was going wrong with Gullikson's health.

That autumn Gullikson collapsed in his hotel room in Stockholm and was found bleeding on a coffee table by a colleague, who took him to hospital. It was erroneously assumed that he had fainted because he had recently started a strict diet and was therefore weak. But a few months later - in December 1994 - Gullikson was taken to the hospital during the Grand Slam Cup in Munich and was believed to have suffered a minor stroke. He went home to Wheaton, Illinois, to rest and insiders assumed that he would take some time off and perhaps not make the journey with Sampras to Melbourne for the 1995 Australian Open.

That surprisingly was not the case. Doctors gave Gullikson the green light to go to Australia. Once again, he became ill. Sampras sensed during a practice session that Gullikson "didn't look right" and he was sent to hospital. It was at that time that doctors realised just how serious Gullikson's con- dition was. Before Sampras confronted his countryman Jim Courier in the quarter- finals, Gullikson flew home to Illinois where it was determined soon afterwards that he had four cancerous brain tumours. When Sampras contested his match with Courier, he was down two sets to love and then rallied to reach a fifth set. Early in that final set, a fan screamed out to Sampras, "Win it for your coach, Pete." Sampras began sobbing into a towel at the next changeover and he continued to fight in vain to hold back the tears in his next service game. Somehow, he summoned the strength to win that match and despite losing in the final of that event to Andre Agassi, Sampras had triumphed in a much larger sense, registering on an emotional level with the public as he had never done before.

As Sampras later recalled of that emotional moment in the Courier match, "I just cracked at that stage. I had this mental picture of Tim lying in the hospital bed and I kind of broke down. . . Tim is a great guy, doesn't have a bad bone in his body and then he gets four brain tumours. It just showed me how vulnerable we all are to things like this. It put everything into perspective for me. . . I want to win every match I play but that is not the most important thing in life. Your health is what matters most."

Gullikson went through numerous chemotherapy treatments in the next 17 months after Australia. Sampras dedicated his 1995 Wimbledon and US Open triumphs to Gullikson. And then in the last couple of months Gullikson's inner circle realised his health was worsening. He was losing the fight after a long and courageous battle. Sampras had two important commitments in April in Hong Kong and Tokyo, but he went to visit Gullikson both before and after those tournaments, knowing that his close friend might not be around much longer. Gullikson passed away last Friday afternoon. And what so few realised was that Sampras had lost much more than a coach; he had lost a cherished friend and a man he admired immensely.

As Sampras remembered a difficult stretch he went through during the early stages of 1995 as he tried to come to terms with the magnitude of Gullikson's situation, he reflected fondly on Gullikson's positive outlook and unshakable spirit. "I had lost in the first round of the French Open," Sampras said, "and I was down. I spoke to Tim and he encouraged me to go to London and get ready for Wimbledon with a good attitude. He told me to think about winning my third Wimbledon in a row. And I was talking to him about this while he was going through the toughest fight of his life, dealing with treatment and this and that. And here he was telling me to have a good attitude. There was a bit of irony in that."

Steve Flink

Tim Gullikson, tennis player and coach: born La Crosse, Wisconsin 8 September 1951; married Rosemary Ledvora (one son, one daughter); died Wheaton, Illinois 3 May 1996.