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Diane Pucin

Men's Game Desperately Needs a Strong Sampras

July 04, 2002|Diane Pucin

Pete Sampras says his second-round Wimbledon loss was a fluke.

The loss to George Bastl, a nice man of no distinguished tennis accomplishments, was a sad occasion for fans of Sampras, for fans of his elegant, complicated game, his under-appreciated class, his record 13 Grand Slam titles.

This loss made fans of Sampras nostalgic, but it didn't make him nostalgic. Sampras says he'll win again. He says that the day he doesn't believe he can contend is the day he'll quit. And he says that day is far away.

If only Sampras, who turns 31 next month, and Andre Agassi, 32, could play in Sunday's Wimbledon men's final. And the final of the U.S. Open. And the Australian Open. Even the French Open.

If only Sampras and Agassi could reprise their 2001 U.S. Open men's quarterfinal match, over and over, until men's tennis produced another worthy champion. Or their 2000 Australian Open semifinal.

Lleyton Hewitt, ranked No. 1, seems more like Martina Hingis than a new Sampras; a temporary No. 1 until a legitimate champion comes along. Hingis was unbeatable until the Williams sisters grew up, until Lindsay Davenport matured into a winner, until Jennifer Capriati decided to work hard.

But if Hewitt is the best there is, men's tennis is in trouble.

Right now the men's game is almost unwatchable. The best of the new breed are all numbing baseliners with no variation of the "Bash the ball as hard as possible" theme. The volley, the drop shot, the lob, all ancient history.

That match Pete and Andre played in New York last September was an instant classic, replayed a day or so later on ESPN Classic as if we wouldn't remember. Nothing has happened to make us forget.

This Wimbledon loss was Sampras' 14th of the year, his 35th since winning Wimbledon two years ago. That was the last time Sampras was a tournament winner. This latest loss was discouraging to his fans because Sampras seemed beaten from the start. His shoulders were slumped when he came onto Court 2, as if the very thought of being moved from his beloved Centre Court was sending a message Sampras didn't want to acknowledge.

That message would seem to be: It's over, Pete.

For those of us who have admired Sampras for a decade, it hurts too much to see Pete lose to Bastl, to Fernando Gonzalez, Felix Mantilla, Max Mirnyi, Andrea Gaudenzi and Nicolas Kiefer. They've all beaten Pete this year.

Losing to Bastl was a fluke? Maybe it's a fluke without all those other losses on the ledger.

"Where that loss was, when it was, to whom, it was shocking," Sampras says. "It was the biggest nightmare possible. This has been a [terrible] six months, tennis-wise, and I'm trying to get through it. This is the toughest thing I've ever had to get through in tennis.

"But that's my challenge. I've worked too hard to keep having the results I've had. This is not about my forehands and backhands. It is more mental."

Sampras is back home in Los Angeles, unable to watch Wimbledon but eager to talk about his future. He is sure he has one in tennis.

He hasn't lost any of his physical ability, Sampras says. Nor any of his commitment and desire.

That match Sampras played against Agassi in the quarterfinals of last year's U.S. Open, that late-night match won by Sampras, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5), is still the standard of his tennis, Sampras says, not what happened at Wimbledon.

Sampras is self-effacing and willing to make fun of himself. He talks about watching "SportsCenter," then laughs and says, "I've had a lot more time than I like to watch it."

He finds it mildly amusing that after all the years of being taken for granted, especially at his beloved Wimbledon, after all the times of being accused of single-handedly bringing about the ruination of grass-court tennis because he was just too good at it, now he is being missed.

"They wish I was back, huh?" Sampras says. "Be careful what you wish for."

The bravado is touching, and nearly convincing.

"The day I feel I can't contend for a major again," he says, "the day I can't do it, that's when I quit. But that day is far from here. Far from it."

Is Sampras kidding himself?

He speaks of the depth in men's tennis as the reason there have been seven Grand Slam tournament winners in the seven Slams since Sampras last won Wimbledon.

Depth or mediocrity?

Look at some of these winners. Goran Ivanisevic was 29 last summer when he won Wimbledon. Thomas Johansson was two months from his 27th birthday when he won the Australian in January. Albert Costa, winner of this French Open, was 27. These were all first-time Slam winners. And last-timers too. They couldn't come close to winning when Sampras and Agassi were at their best. So they gobble up titles now in the great void.

Too much excellence? Or too much mediocrity and not enough champions?

Sampras did acknowledge having all these different, anonymous winners is not great for the game. U.S. fans need recognizable faces and characters.

"We need Americans to start winning championships," Sampras concedes. He's a sports fan as much as he is a player. If pushed, Sampras would have to agree that right now, soccer is hotter than men's tennis here at home.

"Are we cool?" Sampras asks at the end of the conversation. We would be cooler if Sampras was playing Agassi on Sunday. Because now, breakfast at Wimbledon is just another meal.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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