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Sampras can't make it
Herniated disc puts record 13th Slam title on hold
Posted: Wednesday September 01, 1999 01:33 AM
NEW YORK (AP) -- Pete Sampras winced as he bent to ease into the chair, the strain on his back sending spasms through his body, the pain etched on his face.
The four-time U.S. Open champion withdrew from the tournament Tuesday after hurting his back during practice Sunday. Later Tuesday, two-time defending champion Patrick Rafter retired with a shoulder injury while playing a five-set match against Cedric Pioline. That left the draw wide open for a new champion.
The herniated disc delayed Sampras' bid for a 13th Grand Slam championship, a scenario that was falling neatly in place until he went to hit on the eve of the Open with Gustavo Kuerten.
"I went for a shot," he said. "It was on a return of serve. I went for this backhand return and I felt it. I didn't hear anything but I felt something go. I felt my back just got ... stabbed by a knife. I just stopped."
"It scared me," he said. "There's no question it scared me. I just walked off the court."
At first, Dr. Brian Hainline, medical director of the tournament, thought Sampras' injury was typical of what his staff sees at the Open every year. The initial diagnosis was a mild back strain.
"In the tennis tournament, we might see 20 back strains," the doctor said. "Pete had initial back pain. It was relatively well-localized. There wasn't anything else. There wasn't a compelling reason to think it was a disc herniation, although we talked about that possibility."
Sampras asked tournament officials to delay his first match until Wednesday, a courtesy that was quickly granted to the No. 1-seeded player.
And then he waited for the pain to subside.
"Sunday night and Monday, I felt I had some back spasms," he said. "It was something I could get a Wednesday start and kind of work through, just do whatever I can to play."
Instead of getting better, the pain remained, a nagging ache that Sampras felt almost constantly as he moved gingerly around his hotel room.
"I felt it in trying to fall asleep," he said. "Every time I moved a different direction, I was feeling it. Moving around, picking up things, just doing the day-to-day stuff people do. You know you need your back to do whatever you need to do."
Hainline then ordered an MRI and CAT scan. The tests revealed a small disc tear in the lower spine.
"We were very fortunate in being able to diagnose the herniated disc very early, before it became anything serious," Hainline said. "There's a very, very focal tear right in the center. It's not pressing on any nerves. It's relatively small. We would expect him to recover fully from this."
The treatment involves rest, followed by exercises and perhaps a month or two away from the courts.
The news devastated Sampras, who will lose his No. 1 ranking while sidelined. He had been poised to make his run at the Grand Slam record at an event where he has prospered.
Now that quest must go on hold.
"I really wanted to have a chance to play here," he said. "I'm not saying I was going to win here or whatever, but to break the all-time record was a dream that I had, to do it here in New York."
Sampras finished 1998 with 11 Grand Slam titles. His victory at Wimbledon gave him 12, tying him with Roy Emerson and bringing him to the hardcourts of Flushing Meadows, a favorite surface.
He was playing well, felt in good shape and anticipated making a major run at the Open.
Sampras' injury opens the field for, among others, No. 2 Andre Agassi, winner of the French Open and loser in the finals at Wimbledon to Sampras, No. 3 Yevgeny Kafelnikov and No. 4 Patrick Rafter, the two-time defending champion.
"It puts in perspective just how thankful you need to be for the opportunities you do get," Agassi said.
Agassi called Sampras on Tuesday morning.
"It was a very classy thing to do on his part," Sampras said.
Someone asked Sampras if he thought Agassi knew about the withdrawal when he called.
Sampras smiled thinly.
"Do you think he was calling to tell me he won last night?" he said.
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