Tennis: The No 1 test for Sampras

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AT THE Compaq Grand Slam Cup in Munich last week Andre Agassi was invited to name the best five tennis players of all time. Agassi paused briefly, then said: "Sampras, Sampras, Sampras, Sampras and Sampras." It was a paean which came not long after a recent poll of a hundred leading professionals named Pete Sampras as the top player in the last 25 years. Nothing, it seems, is too good for Pete as far as his fellow pros are concerned.

As Sampras, in a season of frequent stumbles, pursues the sport's summit - a record sixth straight year at No 1 - those willing to lend a hand are legion. When Sampras was beaten in the opening round of the Swiss Indoors five days ago, the first time this had happened to him in 16 tournaments this year, he immediately asked for a wild card into this week's Vienna event.

Sorry, said the Austrians, we've already allocated our three wild cards. Up stepped Boris Becker, one of the three. Take my card, he told Sampras. You need it more than I do. "Boris knows what I'm trying to achieve," said Sampras. "He knows how much it means."

That gesture demonstrated the esteem in which Sampras is held by the other smiters of a tennis ball. It also shows the struggle in which the 27-year-old American is at present enmeshed as he strives to shatter the record of five successive years as No 1 he shares with Jimmy Connors.

Lately, Sampras has given the impression of someone attempting to run through deep sand. True, he won Wimbledon for the fifth time in six years but by his own account he was not playing well. That apart, his only successes this year have come indoors at Philadelphia and on clay in Atlanta.

Wimbledon 1998 was his 11th Grand Slam title, putting him level on the all-time greats list with Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg and one short of the all-time round dozen chalked up by Roy Emerson. Whether Sampras will ever match Emerson, never mind eclipse him, will almost certainly be decided in next year's Grand Slams, otherwise it could be too late. Right now, Wimbledon excepted, Pete is getting taken apart more frequently than he feels comfortable about by opponents with willpower and stamina (Karol Kucera at the Australian Open, Patrick Rafter at the US Open).

For the moment, the Emerson mark is not in the forefront of Pete's thinking. More pressing is his impending appointment with history, becoming the only man since rankings were introduced in 1973 to finish top of the heap six years in a row. Sampras first donned the mantle of No 1 on 12 April 1993. Since then he has held top spot for 240 of the 281 weeks, being briefly usurped by Jim Courier in 1993, Agassi in 1995 and 1996, Thomas Muster in 1996 and Marcelo Rios for six weeks this year. Only Ivan Lendl (270 weeks) and Connors (268) have reigned longer.

Both Rios and Rafter are closing in, hence the urgency in Sampras's scheduling, pulling in that appearance in Vienna, followed immediately by Lyon - a favourite tournament which he has won three times - then the Mercedes Super Nine events in Stuttgart and Paris, followed by the ATP Tour World Championships in Hanover, which bring the season to an end. Having won Hanover for a fourth time last year, Sampras will drop a lot of ranking points if he doesn't do well again, hence the haste to bag extra points before that.

Not for five years has Sampras spent five straight weeks in Europe. At this late time of the season he prefers to log some couch potato time at his Orlando home, readying himself for the challenge of Hanover, but he well knows that there are no short-cuts when you are traversing history's highway, particularly if the journey is fraught.

Asked to assess the reasons for last Wednesday's first-round Basle defeat by Wayne Ferreira (the fourth successive time the South African has beaten him), Sampras said: "You can't explain things like that. It just depends on the day. You have days when you can't get going and there are other days when you are just in the zone. You don't do anything differently, it just happens."

As the long-time No 1, he is an obvious and tempting target. "Guys with nothing to lose play above their ability and sometimes they get lucky or whatever. But I have won a lot of matches where I definitely didn't play that well and my reputation helped out.

"If I had won the US Open this year, this probably wouldn't have happened," said Sampras of his European odyssey. "But it's not easy to stay on top in any sport. Being there for five years, and maybe six, is something that hopefully I'll be remembered for. It's one thing to be the best for one year, but doing it year after year is not easy, believe me. You have to be consistent and you have to be healthy. There are so many different things you have to do and I've managed to do them."

As someone whose career prize money alone will be approaching pounds 22m by the end of the year, Sampras is assured of his niche in tennis history, but he is far from being one of the sport's breast-beaters.

"When I was voted No 1 by my fellow players, that's when it kind of hit me that I was making an impact on the game but I would never look at myself as being the best ever. I am just trying to be the best player I can be. Because I am still active, playing week to week, it's difficult when I am asked to stand back and assess my place in history.

"Here in Europe is where I need to be right now, that much I know, because getting that six-year record is what my heart is set on. That would make a clear statement that this kid is for real. Then people would have no choice but to respect me. I want to be remembered as a good tennis player who was just a class guy."

No problem there, Pete.