Tennis: Sampras sticks to chosen path

Ronald Atkin says that the world No 1 will give the Davis Cup a miss
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The Independent Online
DEMAND FOR tickets to the Davis Cup tie between Britain and the United States at the National Indoor Arena, Birmingham, has been so massive that the 8,000 capacity is being extended by a further 1,000 seats, even though the event is still seven weeks away.

They are coming from as far away as Truro and Aberdeen to attend a guaranteed sell-out, an occasion which is, according to the Lawn Tennis Association's tournament director, Gavin Fletcher, "by far the biggest British tennis event this year outside Wimbledon".

Only in the United States is the reaction see-sawing between dismay and indifference. Dismay on the part of the US Tennis Association and indifference from Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, their best two players, who the USTA have been wooing ceaselessly, but unsuccessfully, to turn up in Birmingham on 2 April.

Sampras has other career priorities, as he made plain a few days ago when he ended a 10-week break from the tennis treadmill by entering the San Jose event in California. Having just clocked up a record sixth straight year as the world No 1, the 27-year-old Sampras is punting for year seven, plus another couple of grand slam titles to make him the greatest of all time in that field, as well as the high-water mark for most weeks spent on top of the rankings. That at present stands at 270, with the name of Ivan Lendl etched alongside, followed closely by Jimmy Connors on 268. Tomorrow Sampras starts his 259th (non-consecutive) week as No 1 and is on course to leave Lendl and Connors in his wake by mid-May.

No mention of the Davis Cup in that wish-list, except to confirm that he does not plan to represent the good old USA this year. "My main goal each year is to try to finish No 1 and win a grand slam title, and I feel Davis Cup puts those goals in jeopardy," Sampras said. "At what price do you sacrifice your goals? I feel I can't finish the year No 1 and play Davis Cup. That is way too much tennis for me at this point in my career."

The decision by Sampras, and also by Agassi (though in his case the withdrawal has more to do with pique and personality clashes), has earned both players some flak. But not a lot, because the Davis Cup does not stand high on America's sporting totem pole. The competition, celebrating its centenary year, got its start in the United States but sentimentality counts for little in a whizz-bang sporting society like America's.

A central plank of Sampras's argument is that the American public simply do not understand the Davis Cup format, particularly the need to embark in defence of the trophy only a couple of months after having won it. His solution would be to hold it, in one place, every four years like football's World Cup or every other year like the Ryder Cup.

In the past, Sampras has paid his Davis Cup dues and occasionally paid the price, too. The memory remains vivid of him being carted away, stiff as a cardboard cut-out, with a massive seizure of cramp after hitting a match-winning shot in the 1995 final in Moscow.

The USTA have a new president, Judy Levering, having replaced Harry Marmion, with whom Agassi so spectacularly fell out last year over the Davis Cup. Ms Levering has done her earnest best to talk the reluctant duo into playing Birmingham. She went to visit them at their homes early in January and was followed on this mission by Tom Gullikson, the American captain. He reported "good conversations" and "good relationships" but, alas, no commitment.

Levering appears to have swallowed the Sampras-Agassi argument about the Davis Cup coming around too frequently. She said: "I think the USTA needs to stand up with these players in forcing changes in some of this scheduling," though she conceded that a change might not suit smaller countries which derive much-needed revenue from an annual Davis Cup.

Thomas Hallberg, the Swede who is the International Tennis Federation's Davis Cup director, said: "We haven't had any problems with the competition's format, apart from the Americans. Changing the format just for one or two players isn't right. We have to take into consideration what we think is best for the Davis Cup. Sweden also has a lot of top players . They always make themselves available. "Rather than alter the format for a few players let's build the tennis calendar around the Grand Slams and the Davis Cup."

Though Todd Martin, Michael Chang, and other Davis Cup-supporting players may not agree with that radical suggestion, they are certainly happy enough to offer themselves against Tim Henman, Greg Rusedski and the sell- out crowd for a tie which, despite being Sampras-and-Agassi-free, still promises to be a cracker.