An hour before he would play in the opening match of last
weekend's tie against the Slovak Republic, Pete Sampras wrapped
up a hitting session with his Davis Cup teammate Andy Roddick. As
the two walked off the court inside the Myriad Convention Centre
in Oklahoma City, Sampras extended his hand to Roddick, 19, the
player anointed as American tennis's Next Big Thing. Roddick
genially raised his clenched right fist at Sampras. For a split
second Sampras froze, before tentatively engaging Roddick in the
bones, the au courant gesture of knocking knuckles.
So it goes for Sampras. He has always been distrustful of
change, so much so that he has used the same Wilson racket for
his entire career, though the model was discontinued years ago.
Yet at the wizened age of 30 he has made a series of
adjustments--radical ones, by his standards--aimed at staying
fresh and keeping up with the younger set.
Clad in Nike for the past decade, Sampras recently terminated his
relationship with the company, having been offended at the
reduced terms of its offer to re-sign him. (A question to ponder:
What becomes of the 3-year-old Pete Sampras Building at Nike's
Beaverton, Ore., headquarters?) At last month's Australian Open,
a de-swooshed Sampras played in a generic white shirt adorned
with an American-flag logo and wore a Los Angeles Lakers cap to
his press conferences.
In January Sampras split with his longtime agent, Jeff Schwartz,
who had been devoting much of his time to younger, NBA clients.
"It was just business," said Sampras last week. He also recently
changed coaches, parting ways with Paul Annacone, his mentor for
six years, and replacing him with Tom Gullikson, whose twin
brother, Tim, Sampras's pre-Annacone coach, died of brain cancer
in 1996. "It was a big decision because I'm such a creature of
habit," said Sampras, "but things were getting stale, and it was
time to hear a different voice, get some new energy."
The most visible change, however, was Sampras's presence in
Oklahoma City for the first round of this year's Davis Cup. In
1995 he won the Cup for the U.S. virtually single-handedly,
taking two singles matches and a doubles match against Russia in
the final. When he returned home to little fanfare, he figured
that if no one else cared about the competition, why should he?
Sampras has been largely AWOL from Cup competition ever since,
and he has taken heat for America's sometimes embarrassing Davis
Cup failures over the past six years. However, moved by
entreaties from U.S. captain Pat McEnroe and by the events of
Sept. 11, Sampras re-upped for this year. "Especially lately,
finding the motivation to represent the country was easy," he
said. "Playing Davis Cup is good for my tennis, too.
Best-of-five-set matches with pressure--it can be a good test."
Sampras got an unexpectedly rigorous one last Friday. With its
two best players, Dominik Hrbaty and Karol Kucera, out with
injuries, the Slovak Republic tapped 19-year-old Karol Beck to
face Sampras. Never having so much as played an ATP match and
standing at No. 268 in the rankings, Beck pushed Sampras deep
into the fourth set before finally wilting, 6-3, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5.
The U.S. swept the remaining four matches and will host Spain in
the next round, on the first weekend in April. Sampras is again
expected to play.
Sampras's retooling comes at a time when his gears don't mesh as
they once did. Since winning his record-breaking 13th Grand Slam
singles title, at Wimbledon 19 months ago, he hasn't won a
tournament. He finished 2001 at No. 10, his lowest ranking since
he was a teenager. "For four or five years I think Pete's been
coasting a bit," said Davis Cup coach Jim Courier, a former No. 1
and a Sampras contemporary. "He felt he owed it to himself to
give it one last push."
Over the off-season Sampras worked out harder than ever with his
trainer, Brett Stephens, and improved his endurance. He got some
tips at the UCLA track from Olympic 100-meter champ Maurice
Greene and spoke with Wayne Gretzky about excelling after
reaching 30. Never a strong practice player, Sampras has been
pushed by Gullikson to make the most of his hitting sessions.
Gullikson also stressed that Sampras needed to improve his
intensity during return games. (Down 4-5 in the fourth set on
Friday, Sampras twice broke Beck's serve to close out the match.)
"It's a little tip here, a little observation there," said
Sampras, "but it helps. In tennis the littlest adjustment can
make the biggest difference."
If Sampras is unwavering in his belief that he can still play at
the highest level, he's enough of a realist to know that there's
far more sand in the bottom half of his hourglass. Wherever he
plays, he savors the cheers a little longer. For a player whose
popularity always has been constrained by his bland--or perhaps
dignified--personality, Sampras has been a barrel of laughs
"The young guys are watching The Simpsons at night, and I'm with
[31-year-old] Todd Martin watching On Golden Pond," he quipped
last weekend. Along with Pete's wife, Bridgette, and younger
sister, Marion, his father, Sam, made a rare appearance in the
stands last weekend. "When I look back," said Pete, "playing
Davis Cup is going to mean more than playing in a
The Davis Cup also gives Sampras the rare opportunity to be part
of a team. Self-absorption is a prerequisite for extended success
in tennis, and for the past decade Sampras, more than any other
player, has toiled in isolation. Last week he watched the Super
Bowl, shared steak dinners and learned hip hand gestures with
teammates. In turn Roddick, James Blake, 22, and Mardy Fish, 20,
observed Sampras's every move. "It was like Michael Jordan and
the Wizards," said McEnroe. "It wasn't necessarily what Pete
said, it was his aura that rubbed off on everyone."
After the surprisingly effective doubles pairing of Fish and
Blake sealed the tie for the U.S. last Saturday, Sampras took
part in the Davis Cup ritual of circling the court while carrying
an American flag. Roddick was supposed to take his own turn as
the flag-bearer but ended up joining Sampras on Pete's victory
lap. Somehow it was fitting. The best player the sport has ever
known might be 30, but he isn't ready to pass the baton just
COLOR PHOTO: ADREES LATIF/REUTERS
"Especially lately, finding the motivation to represent the
country was easy."