Can Sampras beat the curse?

Bud Collins on the strange world that produced Roy Emerson, holder of the 31-year-old Grand Slam singles record
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The Independent Online
DOES THE "Curse of Black Butt'' - a place Pete Sampras probably has never heard of - have him enmeshed in its tentacles? It should become clearer as the latest edition of the Big W unfolds and a seemingly vulnerable Sampras, pressing not to fold as he did in Melbourne and Paris, guns for his fifth championship.

Pete wouldn't be the first great to come oh-so-close to overtaking that favourite son of dusty, forgettable Black Butt in the Queensland bush, Roy Emerson... but then slink from the scene accursed. It happened to another Queenslander, Rod Laver, and the Swede, Bjorn Borg. And maybe to Sampras's countrymen, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, Aussie John Newcombe and the Czech, Ivan Lendl as well, who had every reason to believe that they could surpass the male record of 12 major singles titles accumulated between 1961 and 1967 by "Emmo".

As a lean, gregarious Aussie refugee from a dairy farm outside of Black Butt (named for a local tree), Emerson divided his dazzling dozen like this: two each US (1961, 1964), Wimbledon (1964, 1965), and French (1963, 1967), plus six Australian (from 1961 to 1967). Sampras is at 10 - and counting? Or cursing? Borg and Laver stopped at 11, Connors and Lendl at eight, Newcombe at seven, McEnroe at six.

"I don't know how it lasted this long, 31 years,'' says Emerson, a 61- year-old teaching pro domiciled in Miami and currently conducting a summer of seminars in Switzerland, at the Palace Hotel at Gstaad.

Emerson, whose hair has gone from patent leather black to buckskin white, laughs often and disclaims any part in the "Curse''. But Turin has its shroud and Black Butt has its proud memories of the days Emmo was No. 1, and his ringleading of eight Davis Cup triumphs made their country also supreme.

In Black Butt, with its two-man police force and 2,000 inhabitants, the present No 1, Sampras, is considered Pete the Stalker. He's trying to wipe out their guy from the record book, a worse crime in those parts than wombat rustling or diluting the beer.

"Oh, I don't mind seeing Sampras get beat. We like having the record here,'' says Kevin Allery, a 70-year-old Black Butt native and Nanangoshire councillor.

Frequent, boisterous laughter punctuates Emerson's discussion of the record. "I didn't even know there was such a record - or that I had it - until last summer when Pete got to 10 by winning Wimbledon. Then people started writing about it. But nobody was record-conscious in my day. I guess I broke Tilden's record, but I wasn't aware of it at the time. There was no mention.''

Correct. American Big Bill Tilden, with seven US and three Wimbledons between 1920 and 1930, was the first man to hit double digits in the majors. Another American, Helen Wills Moody, preceded him and had 13 of her 19 by 1930.

Tilden, dead 14 years, fell to Emerson in early 1967 as Roy beat Arthur Ashe at the Australian for No. 11. Four months later he beat teammate Tony Roche to again win the French, that deep mystery for Sampras.

"Looking back,'' Emerson says, "I can't imagine how Laver didn't top me. He had 11 after his 1969 Grand Slam. Or Borg after he won his sixth French in 1981 to go with his five Wimbledons.''

The "Curse''?

"But Pete will do it, and I'm cheering for him. A great player and a great sportsman. Plenty of time. He's only 26. I was 30 when I won my last.''

Emerson had "no intention of setting a record.'' Sampras, who has set his heart on it, is the better player, with fiery serve, huge forehand, greater variety. But Emmo, a 21ft-plus long jumper as a schoolboy and daring volleyer, may have been the better athlete. Certainly he was the more complete, holding the doubles record too, 16 majors.

Strengthening those volley-punching wrists "by milking thousands of cows as a kid'', Emerson is nonetheless bullish on his stalker. "Pete plays a beautiful game, and is a good role model for kids. More power to him,'' he says.

Emmo's mate, Allery, remembers: "Wonderful family, the Emersons. You could tell young Roy had the goods. We'd go over to the court on their farm to play weekends. Home-built, red antbed court. Common in the country. Knock over those ant or termite hills that look like fire plugs, spread it out and roll. Played like a gritty clay court. Nothing left of the court but a few posts.''

Hallowed timber. He ought to send a piece to the International Tennis Hall of Fame at Newport, Rhode Island, where Emerson was enshrined in 1982, and put up a plaque at the two bitumen town courts on Hart Street saying: ROY EMERSON PLAYED HERE!

Sampras - "surprising myself, I didn't know what I was doing'' - became a major threat at 19, winning the US of 1990. By 1993 he got serious by seizing Wimbledon, starting a string of nine victories in 17 major starts.

But failure in the last three has made Black Butt burghers bubbly. If Pete the Stalker flops this time at SW19, "Curse'' theorists may be dancing in Coulson Street, the town's main thoroughfare.

"I don't think so,'' cautions Allery. "We don't dance in the street.'' Maybe the kangaroos, koalas and emus get in the way.