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Together, Yet Apart : Sampras Will Be Playing in the U.S. Open but Thinking of His Stricken Coach, Tim Gullikson

August 27, 1995|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Pete Sampras' coach will not be coming to the U.S. Open when it begins Monday. Just as he missed the French Open and Wimbledon, another Grand Slam tournament will slip away without Tim Gullikson.

Sampras is here, missing his coach, but longing for his friend more. The bond between Sampras and Gullikson has knitted itself into something more profound since Gullikson underwent a biopsy, which revealed four identical finger-like tumors growing in his brain, a type that is slow growing but malignant.

Gullikson, 43, accepted the news with fear but a coach's orderly and meticulous planning to conquer another opponent. Sampras, 24, was stunned into contemplating what young and strong athletes rarely dwell on: human mortality.

"It just put everything into perspective," Sampras said. "For the past 23 years of my life, things have been going along pretty smoothly. Then the death of Vitas [Gerulaitis], and Tim's illness. It kind of opened my eyes to how vulnerable we all are. It happened so quickly. Tim's a healthy guy, 43 years old, and suddenly he gets cancer. That showed me how vulnerable we all are."

Even as Gullikson remained at his home in Wheaton, Ill., Sampras found a way to take a part of his friend with him on the road. Sampras has gleaned the best parts of his coach and his lessons. What Gullikson is teaching Sampras now about courage and optimism in the face of overwhelming odds is the kind of life lesson that is at once valuable and painful.

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For months Sampras had clung to the flimsy hope that Gullikson's brave claim--"I'll be back by the Open"--would come true. A month ago it became clear that Gullikson wasn't going to make the trip.

"He's not going to be able to," Sampras said. "He had to do a fourth round of [chemotherapy]. He's just a little tired. He's not going to be doing any traveling for a while. He knows that his health is the most important thing."

Gullikson missed Wimbledon this year, the first time in 20 years he hadn't been at tennis' biggest event. He watched on television, with friends gathered at his home as Sampras beat Boris Becker to win the title, which he dedicated to Tim.

Tim's twin brother, Tom, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, was in the players' box at Wimbledon, cheering for Sampras. In fact, Sampras said the sound of Tom's voice--so similar to Tim's--shouting his nickname, "Pistol," gave him encouragement.

Sampras had appeared lost and adrift during the spring clay court season. He arrived at the French Open with high hopes but a poor record on his least favorite surface. Sampras' first-round loss was his first opening loss at a Grand Slam event in five years and left him questioning and unsure.

That Sampras took the loss hard was understandable, but the pain of losing was doubled by Sampras' professed "Win one for Gully" approach. After matches, Sampras had taken to saying, "Tim is doing his part by going through his chemotherapy, I'm doing my part by winning."

Powerless to help his friend in any medical way, Sampras convinced himself that if he won enough tournaments he might make Gullikson well. By taking responsibility for Gullikson's health, Sampras put himself in an untenable position where, in his mind, his losses were equated with hurting his coach.

Sampras said he became aware of this self-constructed trap and is now trying to let tennis stand for itself, not as a cancer-fighting agent.

"Tim knows that I'm doing my best and trying to win," Sampras said. "Over the clay-court season, when I wasn't doing so hot, he was disappointed and so was I. But I'm not putting pressure on myself for his recovery. I can't do that."

The two have been uncommonly close in the tennis world of disposable coaches. Sampras left Joe Brandi in December 1991 and first approached Tom Gullikson to coach him. Gullikson was under contract to the USTA and unavailable, but he recommended his brother.

Tim Gullikson is an exponent of mental toughness. He took the talented but slack Sampras in 1992 and boosted him from a static No. 6 ranking to a solid No. 1 and five Grand Slam titles before he became sick.

"Things were good, things were working," Sampras said recently. "Tim and I got along well. He is my coach and also my friend."

The first inkling of illness occurred at a tournament in Stockholm last October. Gullikson returned to his room after dinner and called the tournament's practice courts. Brad Gilbert, Andre Agassi's coach, answered the phone and he and Gullikson commenced a bizarre conversation--Gilbert was unable to understand Gullikson's slurring words and Gullikson heard Gilbert's voice but had no comprehension of what he was saying.

Upon hanging up the phone, Gullikson fell forward and collapsed into a glass-topped coffee table, smashing his nose and embedding shards of glass in his face.

When his doctors in Wheaton suggested Gullikson might have a faulty heart valve, no one was particularly concerned.

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