Pete Sampras is the hottest player on tour heading into the U.S.
Faced with the unenviable task of killing three days in
Indianapolis before his first match in last week's RCA
Championships, Pete Sampras indulged in the local passion. He
strapped himself into a go-kart at the Stefan Johansson Karting
Center and put pedal to pavement in a 25-lap race around the
indoor track. "I was pretty pumped to compete, but then I looked
over, and the guys I was racing were professional CART drivers,"
he says. "I was totally intimidated, and they just toyed with me."
Perhaps now he can relate to the poor saps on the other side of
the net. Until he withdrew with a strained hip flexor in the
Indy semifinals on Saturday, Sampras had won 24 straight matches
and four straight tournaments heading into the U.S. Open, which
begins on Aug. 30. At age 28 he is playing perhaps the best
tennis of his gilded career. His ground strokes hiss before they
tattoo the lines, and his serve is harder to read than Finnegans
Wake. After a few days' rest he expects the hip to be ready for
the two-week ordeal of the Open. "It's been a good run for me
the past couple of months," he says with typical understatement.
"I'm just riding the wave, hoping it doesn't crash."
Sampras's sizzling summer is all the more remarkable given his
desultory start this year. Though his long-stated goal has been
to eclipse Roy Emerson's record of 12 career Grand Slam singles
championships, Sampras, then winner of 11 Slam events, skipped
the Australian Open in January to play in a celebrity golf
tournament. When he rejoined the tour in February, he didn't
advance past the semifinals in any of his next seven events,
hitting bottom in an execrable second-round loss at the French
Open, the only major he has never won.
Meanwhile, Sampras and his girlfriend, actress Kim Williams,
split after nearly two years together. "After the French, I was
about as low as I've ever been, personally and professionally,"
says Sampras, who last year bought Kenny G's $2.9 million Los
Angeles mansion in part to be closer to Williams. "I looked at
it as a test of character to get back to where I wanted to be."
He passed the test. In addition to tying Emerson's record by
winning Wimbledon, Sampras has been dominating top opponents.
Since June he has waxed Andre Agassi three times, snapped a
four-match losing streak against No. 13-ranked Richard Krajicek
and exacted revenge on his latest nemesis, No. 4 Pat Rafter, who
beat him in the semifinals of last year's U.S. Open and called
him a "crybaby" for blaming the loss on an injury.
For all his unsurpassed shotmaking, however, the most
conspicuous difference between Sampras and other top guns may be
neurological: Sampras compartmentalizes pressure and plays big
points better than anyone else. He is, after all, a player who
has appeared in 77 tournament finals and hoisted the winner's
trophy 60 times. "When the match is on the line," says Rafter,
whose feud with Sampras has reached detente, "Pete doesn't let
you come up for air." Adds Sampras's coach, Paul Annacone, "Pete
doesn't have a panic button."
Yet it is precisely this unflappability, often perceived as
robotic detachment, that prevents Sampras from getting his due.
While the resurgent Agassi is as popular as ever, Sampras still
arouses only middling fan support. To his credit he professes
indifference to his popularity and defiantly refuses to adopt a
shtick. "I'm not a celebrity, I'm an athlete," he says. "The
bottom line is that I'm happy with my tennis now, and we'll see
if I can keep it up for a few more weeks."
By then, Roy Emerson's days as a record holder may be over.
NEW WARDROBE, OLD ATTITUDE
Paroled after a monthlong house arrest, her self-imposed
punishment for detonating at the French Open and Wimbledon,
Martina Hingis seems unrepentant. The acid test will come at the
U.S. Open, but Hingis is already up to her old tricks. In
winning an event in San Diego earlier this month and the du
Maurier Open in Toronto last week, Hingis tormented opponents
with fiendishly clever tennis, all the while smiling like
Chucky. She has rejoined her old partner--her mother, Melanie
Molitor--who's again her coach and traveling companion. And
Hingis's personality remains blissfully unencumbered by modesty.
"Maybe people were thinking I would change and not come back as
strong," says Hingis, who reclaimed the top ranking from Lindsay
Davenport on Aug. 9. "But that just gave me more motivation to
show that here I am again."
In fact, the only perceptible difference in Hingis--besides a
garish new wardrobe courtesy of Adidas--is a higher level of
fitness. Following her defeat in the first round of Wimbledon by
129th-ranked Jelena Dokic and a brief vacation in Cyprus with
her latest beau, Swiss touring pro Ivo Heuberger, Hingis
repaired to her home in Florida determined to get in better
shape. She spent three hours a day on the court. She also pumped
iron for the first time in her career.
The extra strength and conditioning served her well in San
Diego, where she creamed Venus Williams in the final, 6-4, 6-0.
The next week, at the Acura Classic in Los Angeles, Hingis was
barely winded after back-to-back three-set matches. (She finally
lost, to Serena Williams, in the semis.) And in the du Maurier
final on Sunday she made short work of Monica Seles, one of the
tour's toughest players.
What does Hingis think now of her disastrous June? "Well, the
French Open was bad because I was so close to winning a Grand
Slam, and then I came [unraveled]," she says. "At Wimbledon, I
just played a bad match and got beat, which happens to everyone."
As one might expect from a player so cocky that midway through
the French Open she bought a Dolce & Gabbana dress to wear to
the champions' dinner, Hingis's confidence didn't waver during
her absence. "I couldn't wait to play again," she says. "I'm
used to being something special, not second best."
The Williams Sisters
ONE PLAYS, THE OTHER DOESN'T
To avoid, as they put it, "the stress" of having to compete
against each other, Venus and Serena Williams usually don't
enter the singles at the same WTA tour event. While this may
reduce family tension and sibling rivalry, it also reduces the
sisters' rankings. For instance, Serena, No. 8, earned scads of
ranking points when she won two events last winter. But to steer
clear of Venus, she has played singles at only four WTA
tournaments since March. The tour bases rankings on a player's
best 18 results within the previous 52 weeks, so Serena is
hamstrung by her sparse schedule.
Venus, No. 4, has also squandered an opportunity to earn buckets
of points by passing on points-rich events--such as Indian Wells
in March and the du Maurier Open last week--on account of
Serena's presence. (Serena then dropped out of the du Maurier
with a shoulder injury.)
Characteristically, the sisters stand by their policy. "I made
my schedule at the beginning of the year, and I'm tired of
answering questions about it," says Serena. Venus has said, "It
just means we have to win as often as we can."
True enough. But it still puts a kink in their long-avowed plan
to be the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players on the planet.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM UHLMAN/AP Sampras stooped but never stumbled against Rafter in the ATP Championship final on Aug. 15.
COLOR PHOTO: KEVIN FRAYER/AP The newly fit Hingis flexed some muscle in subduing the field at the du Maurier.
by the numbers
22 Number of Grand Slam singles titles won by Steffi Graf, who
retired two weeks ago.
24 Grand Slam singles titles won by all remaining women players
5 Men who have held the ATP's No. 1 ranking over the last 52
5 Women who have held the WTA's top ranking over the last 12
9 Months the WTA tour has gone without a title sponsor.
5 Senior Tour ranking of Mansour Bahrami, ahead of Grand Slam
title winners Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Andres Gomez.
192 Highest ATP Tour ranking attained by Bahrami.
4.5 Sportscaster Bob Costas's ownership percentage in the St.
Louis Aces, which went 3-9 in World TeamTennis in the season
that ended on July 19.