Monday Interview: Sampras hoping for a happier new year

1996 brought personal turmoil off the court and only mixed success on it. Steve Flink talked to the world No 1 as he prepares for the first Grand Slam of 1997
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The Independent Online
Pete Sampras walks off the court at Madison Square Garden, New York. He has just completed a bizarre 20-minute exhibition against John McEnroe at the Nike Cup, with both players calling their own lines, playing all lets, and even experimenting with wooden rackets. Sampras moves quietly through the crowd, signs autographs for a cluster of swarming teenagers, then finds a vacant room down the corridor where we sit down to discuss the year gone by and the campaign ahead.

This week the 25-year-old American is playing in an exhibition tournament in Melbourne as preparation for the Australian Open, which begins there a week today. Can Sampras take the year's first Grand Slam for the second time and start his 1997 campaign with conviction? "I sometimes have a problem with putting too much pressure on myself at the majors," he says. "But it would be great to go down there and try to win it, and start the year with momentum."

On this bone-chilling evening, the game's greatest player is pensive and proud as he reflects on his 1996 success. For the fourth consecutive year he has finished as the top-ranked man in the world. He won 65 of his 76 matches and eight tournament titles, including a stirring US Open triumph which was his eighth Grand Slam singles crown (his seventh in the last four years). But his coach and closest friend, Tim Gullikson, died of brain cancer in early May, and he broke up with his long-time girlfriend, Delaina Mulcahy, in late October. It has been a complicated period in his life.

"Off the court it was very difficult for me with Tim passing away," he says. "But from a tennis standpoint, it was a very good year. In a lot of ways, this might have been my most satisfying year when I think about the adversity I faced and the emotions I went through. Getting through all that really meant a lot to me."

Gullikson had only been gone for three weeks when Sampras began a spirited run at the French Open, the only Grand Slam tournament to have eluded him. After three five-set victories, including wins over two double former champions, Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier, Sampras reached the semi-finals for the first time, but lost decisively in straight sets to the eventual champion, Yevgeny Kafelnikov. "I was running on pure emotion in Paris. I felt very down after I lost but I came to Wimbledon in a good frame of mind," he says.

In 1995, Sampras had established himself an the first American man ever to sweep three singles titles in a row at Wimbledon. But the quest to keep his crown on Centre Court did not succeed last year. "Losing there was a big disappointment to me. I wanted to continue my streak and maybe win four or five in a row but Richard Krajicek was hot and he really outplayed me in the quarter-finals. I have no excuses. Nothing is bigger than Wimbledon."

Leaving that loss behind him, Sampras set his sights entirely on the US Open, his last chance to secure a Grand Slam title in 1996. In the quarter-finals, he found himself a point away from defeat against Alex Corretja of Spain.

For four hours and nine minutes through the late afternoon and on into the evening, Sampras and Corretja battled it out, but Sampras was waging a debilitating internal struggle with stomach cramps and was thoroughly exhausted in the later stages of a gripping match. Eventually, the American reached the verge of collapse, throwing up on the court during a fifth set tie-break. But, in a thrilling climax, he saved a match point and went on to win an extraordinary contest 7-6, 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6.

As soon as the game finished, tournament doctors treated the dehydrated Sampras with intravenous fluids and he made a remarkable recovery, defeating Goran Ivanisevic in a four-set semi-final two days later. Then, in a final of first-rate shotmaking, Sampras beat Michael Chang 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 to retain both the title and the world No 1 ranking which his fellow American would have taken if had he won.

But the Corretja contest was what everyone would remember.

"That match seemed to sum up everything for me about 1996," Sampras says. " Maybe there was some kind of fate that enabled me to get through it after getting sick. It really was my most satisfying Grand Slam victory. To beat Corretja in an incredible match and then go on and beat Chang in the final with the No 1 world ranking up for grabs was a great feeling."

But in the aftermath of his victory over Corretja, Sampras discovered that public cynicism about sportsmen had reached an extraordinary level. In the weeks that followed the US Open, many fans wrote angry letters to prominent American tennis publications accusing him of flagrant gamesmanship because he looked so ill between points yet still summoned the strength and agility to stop Corretja in the climactic 16 point tie-break. Those who have followed Sampras closely over the years, found this an extremely unfair view of as earnest a champion as the game has produced. Why were the critics so disparaging?

"It just confirms my feeling," Sampras says, "that there are some cynical sports fans who have no idea what it's like to be on the tennis court. It is amazing that they thought I got sick in a big match because I wanted to throw my opponent off. That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. But I know deep down what really happened out there and that is all that really matters."

In any case, winning the championship of his country for the fourth time kept Sampras on a high through the rest of 1996 and helped him to capture the season-ending ATP Tour World Championship in Hannover, Germany. In the final, Sampras overcame a resurgent Boris Becker in five tumultuous sets. It was arguably the match of the year in the men's game. For the third time in a month, Sampras had confronted Becker, beating him when it mattered most.

"Boris and myself really started a rivalry over the last couple of months," Sampras said. "That Hannover final was unbelievable. I have never been in a match quite like it anywhere. You couldn't even talk because the crowd noise was so deafening. That will always stick out in my mind. I have enough money and my No l ranking, but playing great matches is what it is all about for me. Winning that one was really sweet."

While Becker took centre stage with Sampras at the end of 1996, what happened to the charismatic Andre Agassi, who had battled for supremacy with his countryman so passionately the year before? Agassi had a lacklustre year, dropping to No 8 in the world, and being overwhelmed by Sampras all three times they met last season. Agassi's falling stock has not been helped by his decision to skip the Australian Open, a decision Sampras finds baffling.

"I am very surprised Andre is not going to be there," said Sampras, who beat him in the final two years ago. "There is nothing more motivational than a Grand Slam tournament and the Australian Open is the first major of the year. Maybe the break will be good for him. In some ways it seems he hasn't rebounded from losing to me in the final of the 1995 US Open, which was such a big match for both of us. But it would be very good for the game if he started playing his best tennis again. He has definitely got the talent to do that."

Becker will be back to defend his title in Melbourne. "He has a very good shot," believes Sampras, "but so do I. Boris is a dangerous hard- court player but it is always different when you are the defending champion. Still, Becker will be tough."

As a champion determined to stretch his talent as long and far as it will go, Sampras is bolstered by Becker's enduring greatness at 29. When Stefan Edberg retired in November at the age of 30, "I thought to myself, I am five years from that. So it is good to see Boris playing so well, and it tells me that if he can play at that level at 29, there is no reason I can't. It is inspiring and has given me a lot of hope for the coming years."

Sampras returns briefly to the subject of Gullikson, and how the loss of his best friend shaded the year he is leaving behind him. "People were asking me after the US Open if I was now OK," he says with a sadness evident in his eyes. "I played the French Open for Tim and felt the burden there and at Wimbledon but after that I was OK. I still think about Tim all the time, but I didn't need to win the US Open for closure [to close that chapter] with him as some thought."

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