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Alone at the Top

Wimbledon, which he won with majestic ease, showed that Pete Sampras may be the best tennis player ever -- and that there's no American remotely like him on the horizon

By S.L. Price

Issue date: July 14, 1997

Sports Illustrated FlashbackThe record will show that every seat was filled, that hundreds of journalists scribbled intently, that linesmen and ball kids and the chair umpire surrounded Wimbledon's Centre Court on Sunday. It can be stated with reasonable certainty that an opponent stood on the other side of the net, racket in hand, believing for a split second that he might win. But it didn't seem that way. No, Pete Sampras made all that disappear. For one hour and 35 minutes, as Sampras drilled serve after merciless serve, as his face betrayed no trace of effort, his metronomic devastation of Cedric Pioline in the men's final rendered everything else superfluous. No one could get into the match -- not the fans, not the officials and definitely not Pioline. It was all Sampras, erasing the world and the suddenly beaming sun with excellence, lifting tennis to such a rarefied level that one year or six months or two days from now people will try in vain to recall whom Sampras beat. "He doesn't give you air," Pioline said after losing 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. "You cannot breathe against him."

What American boy could ask for more? Eight years ago Sampras went to Wimbledon for the first time and was bounced in the first round. Now, at 25, he has the tennis world by the throat. By winning his 10th Grand Slam singles title, he moved into a tie with Bill Tilden on the men's alltime list and positioned himself two short of Roy Emerson's record of 12. The discussion around Sampras now has less to do with opponents such as Pioline than with those legends who gathered about Sampras when the All England Club began this year's soggy fortnight on June 23 with the ceremonial opening of the new Court No. 1.

That day, for the first time in his career, Sampras found himself surrounded by the history he has been chasing all these years. One by one, champions who had won at least three Wimbledons lined up before an adoring throng: Boris Becker, Louise Brough, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, John Newcombe and, last, Sampras. He fidgeted in the morning damp, digging his right toe into the new grass, casing the joint and chatting with Becker, and after everyone else was called up to receive a commemorative plate, Sampras found himself standing alone, waiting to be summoned.

"I was the last one ... and it hit me," Sampras said later. "For a second I felt like, What am I doing here? Then I knew: I'm in a great class of players. I felt good about myself. I realized I'm making some sort of impact on the game."

Some sort? With all of Sampras's serious rivals suddenly gone, his stature in the game is colossal. His somber focus in London made him seem like the only adult playing. "I really have no fear," he said after his victory Sunday, and no one could argue. Sampras made good on a stunning 66% of his first serves during the tournament and was broken only twice in 118 service games. His semifinal victim, Todd Woodbridge, a savage competitor who defeated Sampras in Sampras's first match here, felt vaguely honored by the beating. "It's something I'll talk about when I'm finished, how good he was," Woodbridge said.

When Becker made up his mind six months ago to retire, he had one vision of his final Wimbledon match: playing on Centre Court against Sampras. When that wish came true last Thursday in the quarterfinals and Sampras had triumphed 6-1, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4, Becker leaned over the net and told his startled opponent that this was his last Wimbledon. Never once, in three meetings there, had Becker broken Sampras's serve. He told Sampras it had been a pleasure to play him. "I was glad it was him, because I respect him so much," Becker said later. "For me, he was always the most complete player. He has the power, he has the speed, he has the touch. He is the best player ever."

Yet when Sampras trotted around Centre Court on Sunday, holding his gold trophy aloft like a burning torch, what should have been one of America's finest tennis moments was instead one of its most troubling. After a disastrous French Open in which, for the first time since 1969, no American man reached the quarterfinals, things got worse for the U.S. at Wimbledon. While all of Great Britain banged the patriotic drum for the quarterfinal runs of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski (WE'VE NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD! screamed one headline), Yanks Andre Agassi, Todd Martin and 1996 Wimbledon finalist MaliVai Washington sat out the tournament with injuries; No. 2 Michael Chang and former No. 1 Jim Courier lost in the opening round; an Open-era low of six Americans advanced to the second round; and Sampras alone made it to the quarters. The U.S. was even weaker on the women's side. Only No. 13 Mary Joe Fernandez scratched her way to the fourth round, making this the worst American performance at Wimbledon since -- Model T, anyone? -- 1913.

One lost summer doesn't make for a crisis. With the hard-court season looming and Agassi making noise about yet another comeback, the U.S. Open could prove to be a showcase for homegrown tennis. But the current class of players isn't what concerns U.S. tennis officials. "After we're done, there's not really another young American coming up," Sampras said last week. "Americans are going to have to really enjoy what they have."

For the moment, the best U.S. female prospect is 17-year-old hairdo Venus Williams, who competed numbly at Wimbledon on a surface perfectly suited to her skills and lost in the first round. "I don't know with Venus," said the women's eventual champion, Martina Hingis. "She doesn't take it too seriously. It's like she doesn't want to win. I don't know if she feels pressure or not, and I don't know what she thinks on the court. She's always trying to do a show, not playing real tennis."

On the men's side, 117th-ranked Justin Gimelstob, 20, had a nice first-round win over French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten but is damned by faint praise. "Justin's got some talent, and he can be a good player," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson. "I don't think he can be a great player."

In the junior ranks, only 14 of the top 100 girls are American -- although one, 17-year-old Aubrie Rippner, made it to the Wimbledon juniors final. Just six of the top 100 boys are American. The hottest buzz surrounds 16-year-old Taylor Dent, son of former touring pro Phil Dent, a transplanted Australian. Taylor is ranked No. 310 in the world among juniors. He lost in the first round of the Wimbledon boys' singles.

Blame Tiger Woods, the rise of basketball and/or the complacency of the U.S. Tennis Association -- which has been notoriously slow to develop the game at the grass roots and in the inner city -- but the irony is unavoidable: When the USTA unveils its $254 million Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open next month, it will celebrate a sport that is in decline in America. "It's pretty sad," said No. 8 Lindsay Davenport, the top U.S.-born woman and a second-round loser at Wimbledon. "People in our country aren't playing right now, and they're not watching tennis too much either. I don't know what to do to change that."

New USTA president Harry Marmion said on Sunday that later this month he will receive the results of a six-month study on the dearth of U.S. tennis talent, and he expects its recommendations to include the hiring of more coaches, a revamping of the USTA area training centers and an increase in the $3.6 million budget for the association's player-development program. "I wouldn't be surprised to see that number double or quadruple," Marmion said. "This is a serious problem, and I'm determined that we're going to solve it."

Of course, neither Sampras nor any other U.S. tennis great emerged from any national program. Sampras is the final harvest of the U.S. tennis boom of the 1970s, a kid who grew up watching Jimmy Connors and McEnroe on TV and thinking tennis was cool, a boy who believed what the commentators said about Wimbledon's being a cathedral. "There's a certain aura about the place that you don't feel anywhere else," Sampras said last week. "The echo of the balls on Centre Court -- it just feels significant."

By the time Sampras was coming of age as a player, however, the boom had shifted to Europe, where girls aped Czech stars Hana Mandlikova, Jana Novotna and, of course, nine-time Wimbledon champ Navratilova. It's not surprising that Hingis, named for Navratilova and reared on a diet of tennis, considers her Wimbledon trophy far more precious than that of her first Grand Slam championship, the '97 Australian. "I'm maybe too young to win this title," the 16-year-old Hingis said after beating the 28-year-old Novotna 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 in Saturday's final and becoming the youngest All England women's champion this century. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anyone in tennis matches Sampras for talent, savvy and match toughness, it's Hingis.

Before the tournament many observers, noting Steffi Graf's absence following surgery on her left knee and Hingis's stunning loss to Iva Majoli in the French Open final, picked Novotna to shed her choke collar at last and win Wimbledon. Not only had Hingis played no preparatory grass-court tournament, but she also spent much of the fortnight loathing the surface. "I hate grass," she said after beating Anna Kournikova, also 16, in the semifinals 6-3, 6-2, "because you have to think differently."

Yet Hingis kept winning her matches in straight sets and kept grinning and expressing her disregard for Graf ("If she's going to come back, for sure it's not going to be the same Steffi as she was. Her career is almost over"), Kournikova ("I don't think it's such a big rivalry. I've always been better, and I always beat her") and Novotna ("Jana can play very good tennis, but sometimes she just can't win").

When Novotna played flawless grass-court tennis to race to a 6-2 lead in the final, you could see Hingis's wheels start to turn. She began to mix her shots, lobbing, going to the net, opening up the court. She won the second set, and in the third she made one astonishing backhand pass after another. Novotna, nursing a pulled stomach muscle, didn't gag this time. She got beaten, and she shed no tears as she had on the duchess of Kent's shoulder after her notorious loss to Graf in 1993. Instead, Novotna played mock tug-of-war with Hingis over the winner's plate.

Meanwhile Hingis -- who but for one Sunday in Paris would be undefeated in 45 matches this year and on her way to a possible Grand Slam -- cemented her place at the top of the game. "I was there, the Wimbledon champion, standing on Centre Court," she said on Sunday. "No one can take that from me. I will remember that all my life."

The 29-year-old Becker knows exactly how she feels. For him, there is simply no tournament like Wimbledon. As his coach, Mike DePalmer, said, "This is where Boris became a man." In 1984, at his first Wimbledon, Becker tore ligaments in his ankle in a match against Bill Scanlon and, before being carted off on a stretcher, insisted on stopping and standing up to shake Scanlon's hand. The next year, at 17, Becker became the youngest man to win Wimbledon. He went on to play in six other All England finals, winning twice more, and to experience at Wimbledon some of his sweetest and worst moments. Last year he pulled up lame with a torn tendon in his right wrist, and the injury began a spiral of nagging ailments that convinced Becker his time had come. After he lost his first-round match at the Australian Open in January, he made the decision to retire from Grand Slam competition after this year. "On the court, I had the feeling I didn't belong there anymore," Becker said last week. "Afterward I said to [my wife] Barbara, 'I can't go on like this anymore, but we somehow have to fill the six months to get to Wimbledon.'"

He told no one else -- not DePalmer, not any official at the All England Club and not former Wimbledon champion Michael Stich, who, in a sad coincidence for Germany, would himself retire after losing in the semifinals to Pioline. Becker won four matches at Wimbledon, all in straight sets, but had no chance against Sampras's serve and felt oddly at peace about it. During a three-hour rain delay in their match, he sat up in the royal box, alone, reading Norman Mailer's account of the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire and stealing glances at Centre Court. Later, when his final backhand flew long and he shook Sampras's hand and began walking off the court, only Sampras had any idea what had just happened. "I was floored," Sampras said later.

Twice, Becker turned to the unsuspecting crowd and bowed deeply. An hour later he was walking fast through the grounds toward Gate 13 with that familiar rolling gait, bag over his shoulder, the milling crowds not recognizing him until he had passed. His face was blank, but with each step closer to the black iron doors he thought, This is it. The last time. The last time.

"I'm glad I made it out alive, to tell you the truth," Becker said that night. "There were difficult times. I played 14 years in a row. The first ones were very hectic, and all of a sudden I became a star, and I didn't know how to handle everything. I was always praying that I somehow would have a long career, and I managed to do that without any major scars in my soul. I'm not drug-addicted, I'm not alcoholic, I'm not three times divorced. I'm quite normal. I manage to have a quite normal life. For me that was always my biggest achievement."

A lone woman saw Becker just as he left Wimbledon, and she applauded. He didn't slow down.

Issue date: July 14, 1997

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