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A Sampras Curve

Australian Open: Split with sponsor leaves him heated, even as he wins first-round match.

January 15, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MELBOURNE, Australia — Relationships have a way of ending, and this breakup was particularly bitter.

One partner was still clinging to the illusion everything remained the same, keeping his larger-than-life picture prominently displayed.

The other made a visible statement that it was over, wearing a patch of the American flag in the same spots that once represented the relationship.

Why try to maintain the fiction?

Pete Sampras and his record 13 Grand Slam singles titles were ready to go it alone ... without Nike. Ordinarily, this would be a footnote after a routine first-round victory. Sampras looked sharp in defeating Jarkko Nieminen of Finland, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, today at the Australian Open, serving 13 aces. But Sampras and Nike were together for eight years, and the recent split is representative of the path of change he has taken since the U.S. Open.

Coach Paul Annacone is gone, replaced by Tom Gullikson. Manager Jeff Schwartz no longer handles his day-to-day affairs. Instead, Jill Smoller, from the same company as Schwartz, is the agent of record. And Nike is history, erased by the American flag and a Laker cap.

Still, the company prominently featured Sampras in advertisements in downtown Melbourne. Sampras didn't just make a statement about the change on the court. Anyone who ever called him bland and cautious should have listened to him here. Sampras, at 30, might as well shoot from the hip if he feels strongly enough.

"At the end of the day you have to feel good about the deals that you do, and as regards to Nike, I don't," he said.

Later, in the hallway, he elaborated. The agreement expired in January, and Sampras indicated the new offer was not as lucrative as the last deal.

"They didn't show me respect," Sampras said.

Sampras has been clear about looking for inspiration, which is one of the reasons he decided late last year to play Davis Cup again for the United States. Even the negativity of the Nike breakup can serve as some form of motivation, as he makes a final charge for another Grand Slam title.

"I have really stepped it up and told myself I am going to give it one really, really hard push," Sampras said. "In these last three months, I have been training hard, doing a lot of running and lifting and doing whatever I can to get in the best shape possible.

"When you hit 30--I've been told by other athletes that is when you need to work twice as hard and you need to push it."

One potential obstacle in the way of Sampras' third Australian Open title, Andre Agassi, was eliminated before the tournament started because of an injured right wrist.

Agassi and Sampras could have met in the quarterfinals. Another threat, top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, a potential opponent in the semifinals, was locked today in a tight first-round match with Alberto Martin of Spain. Hewitt split the first two sets with Martin and lost the third, 6-4, as this edition went to press.

Defending champion and top-seeded Jennifer Capriati had a much easier time. Capriati defeated Silvija Talaja of Croatia, 6-4, 6-1, in 62 minutes.

Capriati, who has been hurting, had her right thigh wrapped as a precaution but felt she moved well on the court.

Capriati's compelling comeback story--resulting in her first Grand Slam title at this event last year--had something of a dreamlike quality. So, as she arrived in Melbourne to defend her title, Capriati actually dreamed about tennis for the first time.

"Maybe because I was so anxious to get on the court and play, and I was just hoping that everything was going to go well and be OK," she said. "Maybe it was telling me in my dreams."

Did she win in the dream?

"Yes," Capriati said.

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