Wimbledon `97: Sampras intent on continuing love affair with lush lawns

Bud Collins wonders whether the men's world No 1 can serve two mistresses
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The Independent Online
Embracing an old lover, Ceecee (aka Centre Court) again, Pete Sampras must feel as relieved as an earlier travelling man warrior, Horatio Nelson, returning to his comfortable station, the bosom of Emma Hamilton.

Ceecee, flat and frisky, where the Wimbledon championship lies, is undoubtedly Pete's desired port in unaccustomed rough weather of late.

Familiarity breeds content and consent, Pete hopes, feeling in these hard and fruitless days for him that Ceecee will recall how good they were together for three years, how he read her every mood and responded fervently in conquest.

True, Ceecee, the Sporting Lady of SW19, spurned Pete a year ago, turning a fickle eye momentarily on the hot-handed suitor, Richard Krajicek.

But she and her surrounding handmaidens remain increasingly mysterious to a generation of unimaginative wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am pursuers for whom dealing with grass is like trying to romance a stone figure of Victoria.

They are not much amused by the subtlety of God's own sod, tournaments thereon as rare in today's game as Andre Agassi's presence or an enlightened agent, but they realise that the Big W is still the grand prize.

Even though Ceecee is a rough, frustrating ride, they will swallow pride and distaste to woo her.

Since a dangerously unimposing Aussie with a gargantuan left arm, Rod Laver, made the amateur-pro transition to the Open era to win Ceecee's heart in 1961-2 and 1968-9 only Bjorn Borg (five times), John McEnroe and Boris Becker (three) co-habited successfully more than twice.

And Pete, of course.

Sampras knows the way through her wiles. Pete says that his late coach, Tim Gullikson, counselled him on appreciating and taking advantage of grass after he'd lost, young and fumblingly inept on first date in 1989- 90 (Mark Woodforde, Christo van Rensburg) and early in 1991 (Derrick Rostagno, second round).

"From Tim I learned return of serve was more important than the serve and," he smiles, "that shortening my swing, the chip and slice that older guys were telling me about, weren't out of date as I thought. He helped me with attitude, not worrying about bad bounces that annoyed me so much as first. Now I love grass." Especially Ceecee.

Sampras loyalists hope he isn't as out of date as his present state - his worst dry spell in five years - might indicate to the pessimistic.

At 25? And No 1 in the world - a world apparently exempting crimson European soil? But didn't Borg win his last major, the French in 1981, at 25? Wasn't McEnroe through winning majors at 25 with his seventh and last, the US Open of 1984? Hadn't Becker seemingly gone dry at 23 with the Australian of 1991, only to offer another title twitch, his sixth, at Melbourne five years later?

"The majors are what count to me and I'm not through winning them," Sampras insists.

Nor should he be two months shy of merely his 26th birthday.

With nine of them in his backpack (four US, three Wimbledon, two Australian) he is closing in on the all-time leading dozen held by Roy Emerson, scuffing at the retired Achilles tendons of Laver and Borg (11) and a ghost of the Twenties, Big Bill Tilden (10).

Of those, Borg alone made his total at a younger age.

Maybe it is some consolation for what has been going wrong lately: a seven defeats in 13 games after launching the campaign with 17 successive wins and three titles, including the Aussie.

But his is a "what have you done tomorrow?" profession, and Pete isn't even among the top 10 match winners for 1997.

He has lurched through six unconvincing tournaments without attaining a final, a parching such as he hasn't experienced since 1992.

Is this is a post-Delaina drought? Though he frowns at such a suggestion, this unflamboyant man of order and routine undeniably performed smoothly during six years (seven majors) of unadventurous domesticity rooming with highly supportive Delaina Mulcahy.

More than a camp follower, she earned a law degree during that time.

Living with a lawyer may not be stimulating - as Pat Nixon might have pointed out - but it was stable.

Now, is he diverted, having to show his stuff all over again - and to another celebrity - in a romance with actress Kim Williams? Does she, the bride in the film Father Of The Bride wish to play that part in sort- of real life? Mulcahy did, and she got the parting.

Pete could handle Ceecee and Delaina at the same time because both had become habits.

Ah, but Ceecee and Kim? Is there is a clash of turfs... of green grass and green flame... old sweetheart and new?

"Tennis is what I'm all about," Pete says. "That's what I do and not much else really interests me right now. Some say that's boring. OK. But I'm not bored. That's the way I am. No apologies. My goal is to win as many majors as I can in the years left and I think I've got good years left."

He says the way he's been bumbling recently, losing four out of six on Continental clay, losing to Jonas Bjorkman at Queen's, makes him more determined than ever to regain Ceecee's favour, and his championship.

Interestingly, his opening round foe, Mikael Tillstrom, will be trying to complete a Swedish trifecta over Sampras.

His countrymen, Magnus Norman and Bjorkman, nailed Pete's last two defeats, and last year at Wimbledon Tillstrom did beat a champion named Stefan Edberg.

If Pete is as highly strung about rediscovering form as his rackets that go pop in the night at 35kilos pressure, his demeanour wouldn't suggest it.

"Relaxed and calm in myself" is a self-description.

Like Admiral Nelson on shore leave with Lady Hamilton?

He's got the itch for Ceecee once more. Does she for him? "I changed my whole game when I was 14, gave up the two-handed backhand with the idea of winning Wimbledon" - going all the way with her.

Their first time together he was "awed", you can feel the electricity.

"You've seen it on TV. This was the McEnroe-Borg court, the place where Laver won four. And then you're finally... you're finally here.

"The echo of the ball, the way you can feel the people around you, even when they're quiet, doesn't come across on TV. You have to be here.

"It's a tremendous feeling." That was 1992. He beat Todd Woodbridge and was forever smitten with Ceecee.

Sometimes men in trouble call for their mothers. Pete probably invokes the Sporting Lady of SW19.