Wimbledon `99: The Pete Sampras Interview: Where the best in the world plays better

RATHER LIKE those signs you see on shop doors when people have just popped out for a minute, Pete Sampras is happy to be displaying the notice "Back at One". No disrespect to other fine competitors like Carlos Moya and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, but their brief sojourns at number one this year had Mr and Mrs Joe Public scratching their heads and wondering where exactly Pete had gone.

Well, Pete is back at the head of the rankings, where he has dwelt for the past six years, just in time to mount his assault in pursuit of a sixth Wimbledon title in seven years. A combination of the failings of others, like Kafelnikov and Pat Rafter, and the timely resurrection of his own fortunes, ensures that Sampras is handily, but perhaps not quite perfectly, placed for that assault. Victory in the Stella Artois championships last weekend provided a wonderful boost, as well as his first title of 1999, ensuring that the defending champion will pass through Wimbledon's gates tomorrow with confidence and head held high.

As well as his first tournament victory, the successes at Queen's Club took Sampras's total of wins this year to a modest (by his standards) 15, following his delayed start to the season and struggle to find form and fitness. Drained by the slog around the European autumn indoor circuit to ensure his sixth straight number one finish, Sampras awarded himself a 10-week break, opted out of the Australian Open and did not wield a racket again until February, since when he has found himself in an athlete's classic dilemma: fresh and eager to compete but short of match play and rhythm.

Injuries to an ankle, in his first tournament of the year at San Jose, and to his back before he had even played his first match in the Barcelona clay court event, plus the body blow of yet another early exit from the French Open, the one Grand Slam he has yet to win, inflicted further damage on his self-esteem. Then, right on his self-imposed deadline for rehabilitation, came the stellar performance at the Stella.

"I'm trying to put what has happened behind me," said Sampras as we talked in a Queen's Club squash court converted into a player-lounge area. "I have to forget about the past four, five months and learn from it. My setbacks this year have been humbling but I have tried to look at the struggle as a positive."

After his second-round loss in Paris to Andrei Medvedev, Sampras returned to the United States for an evaluation session with his coach, Paul Annacone. "We had a heart to heart about where I'm at, my career, my year so far. I realised I had put too much pressure on myself talking about my need to win the French. I play my best tennis when I just go out and play. I want to win in Paris so much but you can't force it. Now I've got two of the year's biggest events [Wimbledon and the US Open] coming up in the next three months. Let's try to win both of them. There's no reason why I can't.

"When I go out at two o'clock on Monday I'll be ready. You have to be realistic: I'm not going to win Wimbledon every year, but if I play well I can do it again because Wimbledon brings out something great in me. The atmosphere of the place is phenomenal. You feel like the whole world is watching Wimbledon. That's why I've played well there, the importance of it. It's our Super Bowl and if you can't get up for that you shouldn't be playing."

Sampras has been sold on the merits of Wimbledon since, as a child in California, he used to get up at 6am to sit by the television set. "It was always a unique feeling compared to the other majors: the atmosphere, the echo of the ball, the court, such a great event to watch.

"After winning there five times in six years I have nothing to prove any more. Bjorn Borg winning five was something I figured would never be touched, so it's overwhelming to put myself in his shoes, and I figure I am in a position to do it a couple more times. There is no reason why I shouldn't.

"Any expectations or pressure will come from myself. Sure, there are some players who could get hot at the right time and beat me but I have the confidence I can do it. I have defended and won three in a row. You kind of get used to it, you get comfortable winning Grand Slams and coming back and doing it again.

"When I head through the gates on Monday I'll be thinking that I'm back home, but I have to admit I'm still a little bit overwhelmed that I have won it so many times. There is something about that Centre Court that I have grown to love and by now I know the routine. I am staying at the same house, same maid, same cook. You get into a ritual, just find a comfort zone, keep it simple. I know I am playing at two o'clock. I will have the same lunch, eat at the same time, practise at the same time, then go out and play."

As for those capable of taking away his title, Sampras sums them up as "pretty much the same guys": the British duo of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, the Australians Rafter and Mark Philippoussis, the 1996 champion Richard Krajicek and the three-times runner-up Goran Ivanisevic.

"If any of them get hot, there's not much you can do. Anyone who can serve big is going to be a threat. Goran does well because he is a great athlete, he can move well and adjust to different balances. That's why Ivan Lendl always struggled at Wimbledon, because he wasn't a natural athlete."

Sampras admits last year's final against Ivanisevic was his most difficult because he felt the match slipping away. "I remember thinking during the changeovers, `It's Goran's year', but in grass-court tennis things can change in two minutes. If he had hit one return just two inches higher he would have gone two sets up and won the match. I am sure he thinks about that all the time. The toughest thing in the game is getting to the final of a major and losing. That's when you wonder if the game is worth it."

Sampras certainly thought it worthwhile to exhaust himself in pursuing that record sixth straight year at number one. "I was absolutely consumed by it," he said, grimacing at the memory. "I would have gone to the North Pole to finish number one. It took a lot out of me and I was pretty miserable. When I got back home I was physically and mentally burnt out and there was no way I could find myself getting ready for the Australian Open. I only took a couple of months off, not six. It was a decision I needed to make and I'm glad I did it because I had been going so hard for so long. I was just telling the people in tennis there should be some sort of off-season and if there wasn't going to be one I was going to make myself one.

"I'm not patting myself on the back but I have a hard time seeing that record ever broken because I have raised the bar so high. It's mind- boggling because the game is so strong today. Staying on top for so long and dealing with the pressures and expectations is one of my greatest achievements. I have to say I surprised myself, I didn't think I would ever do this.

"I have always been comfortable at number one. My personality helps me to cope with it. You might think I am boring but the fact that I don't do or say much helps. When I play tournaments headlines aren't really what I want, it has always been about holding up that cup. I am not a volatile guy with highs and lows who will go off the deep end, just this level-headed guy who keeps it reasonably simple. That's my formula and that is what has worked for me.

"The only way I feel good about my tennis is if I am number one. You have to want it deep down; it has to be your life. Look at guys like Lendl and Connors. Tennis was their life and their personalities meant they needed to be number one."

Reclaiming the top spot last week enabled Sampras to match Connors' 268 weeks at number one. By the end of Wimbledon he will be level with Lendl's male record of 270 weeks, so another mark is beckoning which will never be exceeded, given the growing strength in depth of men's tennis. However, the record number of weeks is not something Pete particularly cherishes. "I would love to do it but, believe me, if I had really wanted to do it I would have travelled around the world this year to get the points. That is something I have done already."

Opting out of point-chasing and his poor results have made it doubtful that Sampras will clock up seven straight years. "At this moment the chances of me finishing number one again are not good. I have dug myself a pretty big hole. But we now have the meat of the year coming up for me. There is no reason why I can't win these next two majors. I expect to go out and win Wimbledon. If I don't, too bad, but there is still time to salvage the year. I couldn't think of a better place to do it than the US Open and New York."

Sampras's decision to cut back on his commitments this year is an indication that, at 27, he seeks the opportunity to enjoy the passing parade, to venture now and again off the tennis treadmill while there is time. But for how much longer? "We'll see," he smiled. "I've been doing this for 20 years. I won't be like Connors, still playing at 38, but I figure I can be competitive until I'm at least 30 and as long as I'm in contention for a major. When the day comes I feel I can't contend or can't physically do it, that will be the day I stop."

And then? "I'd like to help kids, get this game a bit more popular in the States. It's time, as I get older, to give back a little bit more because the game has been unbelievable to me and I've been so consumed with what I've been doing that you sort of lose touch. Taking that time off at the beginning of the year made me realise it's about more than just winning tennis matches."

Maybe, but right now there are a few tennis matches to be won on the lawns in SW19. Pete Sampras looked up at the squash court ceiling and steepled his fingers: "Not many guys have won Wimbledon six times, that's what I am aiming for," said the man who's Back at One.

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