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TENNIS LISA DILLMAN

Sampras Stretching the Limits

June 24, 2002|LISA DILLMAN

WIMBLEDON, England — Granted, some of us are clumsier (more unlucky) than others. If there is a chair to be bumped into, sure enough, the knee will find it. Simply rolling over in bed to look at the alarm clock awkwardly can mean a certain visit to the chiropractor.

Which is why Sunday was a genuine revelation at Wimbledon. After all these years, Pete Sampras has a way to still cause something of a surprise on the eve of this tournament.

He is, as it turns out, just like you and me.

Well, just like you and me ... only with 13 Grand Slam titles and $42 million-plus in prize money.

This new awareness came from his coach, Jose Higueras, in a brief chat on the balcony near the practice courts at the All England Club in the afternoon. Sampras, as the most recent champion in the field, was scheduled to play the first match today on Centre Court, befitting his stature here.

But because of an injury suffered Saturday, a supposedly minor one, he requested a Tuesday start. Club officials politely declined his request but had another idea. "However, as is the case with all players who ask for a late start, we were able to help him by putting him on the third match on Monday," tournament referee Alan Mills said.

Andre Agassi, the champion here in 1992, will take the spotlight, opening on Centre Court against Harel Levy of Israel.

Serena Williams, who plays Evie Dominikovic of Australia, will follow Agassi. And Sampras, body permitting, will play local hope Martin Lee of Maidenhead, England. Lee is struggling--to put it mildly--at 1-13 at the tour level in 2002.

But Sampras will face Lee at less than 100%. At first, his injury was called a "tweak" of the back. Higueras said it was a strain of the right lower ribs, which occurred Saturday.

Sampras hurt himself by getting off a massage table. He has been injured plenty of times, but this was a new one, a mishap coming off the court, rather than on it. Higueras said tests showed no evidence of a tear, however.

"He wasn't even playing, he was getting up from the table from being stretched and his back just got locked," Higueras said. "All of a sudden, he felt something weird. It was one of those freak things."

Tennis is well-known for quirky injuries but table-itis has its own place now because of Sampras.

This year alone, there was Venus Williams hurting her wrist by picking up an equipment bag in Rome. (By the way, don't star players hire someone to do that?)

Then there was Tim Henman, who was injured simply walking around the grounds at the tournament in Miami. He was heading to the court and hurt himself by trying to clear the way of a spectator, thereby tweaking his neck. Henman got through that match against Felix Mantilla of Spain, somehow, but was forced to default in his fourth-round match against Roger Federer of Switzerland.

There seems little danger of that happening with Sampras. Asked whether he thought Sampras could play today, Higueras said: "I sure do."

For veteran Sampras watchers, at first glance, this one falls far short of other ailments. Two years ago, Sampras won his seventh Wimbledon and record-setting 13th Grand Slam event despite suffering from tendinitis in the left shin and foot. It affected him from the second round on and prevented Sampras from practicing on off days.

There were doubters in the locker room, brought up by Sampras, in fact. He said he felt the skepticism from some of the other players, noting it in the lackluster handshake from one of his victims.

That was his last singles title, now a span of 29 tournaments. Sampras has reached two U.S. Open finals since and more recently lost in the final at Houston on clay to Andy Roddick this year. On grass, he struggled uncharacteristically, losing to Alex Corretja in Houston in the Davis Cup quarterfinals and to Nicolas Kiefer in Halle, Germany almost two weeks ago.

"From what I saw in Halle was not so good," said Peter Lundgren, the coach of Federer, who beat Sampras here last year in the fourth round.

Lundgren said Sampras was not returning well, had no rhythm on his serve and was lacking confidence. Those are hardly secrets. Higueras was not in Halle, but the Spaniard reported that Sampras had been looking good in practice, arriving here last Sunday. Higueras wasn't making a big issue of the early loss in Halle.

On the issue of confidence, Higueras said: "We don't talk about that stuff. Obviously when you don't win much ... nothing beats winning."

Finally, and surprisingly, Sampras did receive something of a vote of confidence from an often-frequent critic, John McEnroe, in the Sunday Telegraph.

"A lot of people seem to be of the opinion that Pete Sampras will never win another Grand Slam," McEnroe wrote. "But certainly, as far as Wimbledon is concerned, you would have to be crazy to rule him out for at least a couple of years.

"His form has been poor lately, but he's in good shape, he knows a thing or two about winning on grass and he'll convince himself that he has an eighth Wimbledon title in him."

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