It seems an age since Pete Sampras turned up at the black-tie Wimbledon Champions' dinner wearing a blazer over his tennis outfit, having rushed to the Savoy from the All England Club after defeating Pat Rafter in a rain-delayed men's singles final. It was July 2000. Sampras has not lifted a trophy since.
The 30-year-old American has nothing to prove. No man in the history of the sport has won as many Grand Slam singles titles – 13 – or has ended the year as the world No 1 six times in a row. And his seven Wimbledon singles championships are testimony to the expertise and elegance of his serve-volley style, a dying art.
On Monday night, however, after a defeat by Fernandez Gonzalez, a Chilean qualifier, 7-6, 6-1, in the third round of the Nasdaq-100 Open, had extended his run of tournaments without a victory to 24, Sampras dropped a hint that his career may be winding down.
"The years I was No 1," Sampras said, "I was probably a little bit too consumed with the sport. It is hard to say how really happy I was. I was happy winning tournaments. In order to stay up there for as long as I did, it took a lot of sacrifice. Those days are over. I have lost enough hair over the years with all the worries and all the stress that I put on myself."
Sampras seemed pleased that the diversion of the United States' Davis Cup quarter-final against Spain in Houston next week at least gives him an opportunity to play on a grass court for the first time in America. "It is nice to play on grass in the States, so people can see how I do it," he said. "Hopefully, I won't embarrass myself."
Jan-Michael Gambill, a 24-year-old American who believes his best days are ahead of him, would also like to show what he can do on the Houston grass. But Patrick McEnroe, the United States captain, has not selected him. "Patrick obviously feels there are better players than me to play this tie," Gambill said.
Gambill's mood was not improved when he lost a thrilling third-round match against Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian world No 1, on Monday night, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5. "It was a shitty way to end the match," Gambill said, having been broken to love in the concluding game. "The match was high-quality from both of us. I felt I had the advantage the whole time. I felt I had the ability to win the points, whereas he was struggling a little bit. But he played two good points to get me down 0-30 in the last game." That is what Hewitt does.
The fifth seed Tim Henman overcame a stiff neck and out-smarted the Spaniard, Felix Mantilla, 7-5, 6-4, in the third round. Yesterday, however, he lost the first set against Roger Federer of Switzerland, 6-2, then retired injured.
As Henman waited to go on the Grandstand Court, there was also a retirement when the two Argentinians, Juan Iganacio Chela and Gaston Gaudio, battled to the point of collapse for a place in the quarter-finals. Gaudio fell first, got back on his feet after treatment for cramp, then staggered to the umpire's chair and retired after cramping again and breaking his racket in anger. Chela won, 6-1, 5-7, 4-3.
In the women's singles, Jennifer Capriati, the world No 1, advanced to the quarter-finals after another testing match. As against Anastasia Myskina, of Russia, Capriati eventually subdued Iroda Tulyaganova, from Uzbekistan, 7-5, 5-7, 6-1.
Capriati is accustomed to strong challenges. "Maybe it is just the kind of game I play that makes people play better against me," she says. "If they can handle a hard-hit ball, I give them good rhythm, and they get psyched up."
Elena Dementieva and Anne Kremer were both psyched up in the closing stages of their fourth-round match, which produced the longest final-set tie-break in the history of women's professional tennis. Dementieva, of Russia, prevailed, 16-14, on her sixth match point, winning, 1-6, 7-5, 7-6, after two hours and 41 minutes.Reuse content