He grimaced. He shrugged his shoulders. He stood there frozen, unable at times even to lift his racket, as ball after ball flew past. Nobody in tennis comes undone more spectacularly than Pete Sampras, and this was classic Sampras. On a beautiful Friday afternoon in Paris, with conditions perfectly suited for his game and his opponent wearing all the earmarks of a third-round victim, Sampras, the world's No. 1 player, presented to the world yet another woebegone portrait. He had come to the French Open obsessed with winning the one Grand Slam event he hasn't mastered, but now, battling the aftereffects of diarrhea—flashes of dizziness, exhaustion, fever and chills—Sampras was nobody's idea of a champion. His serves leaped into the net like misguided fish, his forehands flew long, and, in the second set, he tugged a racket out of the courtside refrigerator and placed it against his burning forehead. The crowd begged: Allez, Pete! But Sampras was going down, and the enduring message he could take into the rest of his career was a simple one. Nothing he wants seems to come easy.
Why think otherwise? Last year Sampras endured three five-setters, beat two former French Open champions and bulled into the semifinals before losing to Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who went on to win the tournament. This year the event seemed particularly ripe for him to pick. Boris Becker, Andre Agassi and Michael Stich withdrew before the fortnight began, and through the first five days the sun battered the red clay courts, hammering them hard, making them better suited for someone with Sampras's big-serve, hard-court game. He handled his first two opponents, clay-court specialists Fabrice Santoro and Francisco Clavet, with such ease that his confidence soared.
"Hitting the ball like I am, serving well, I'm going to be pretty tough to beat," Sampras said after Clavet won just five games against him. All the talk about Sampras's injured right wrist and left thigh, his two first-round losses heading into Paris, began to fade.
But once Sampras got leveled by a common case of tourista, and Magnus Norman celebrated his 21st birthday by upending him 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, Sampras wasn't alone in wondering whether his tremendous talent hadn't come at a maddening price. He has both endured and lost out to a slew of physical breakdowns—including, most famously, his five-set, vomit-marred win over dehydration and Alex Corretja in the quarterfinals of last year's U.S. Open, and for two years he lived through the terminal illness of his coach Tim Gullikson. "At times it just seems like in my life things happen," Sampras said the morning after losing to Norman. "Things just happen around me that test me."
The testing isn't over. Just before flying to Europe last month, Sampras learned that the architect of his game and his coach from age nine to 18, Southern California pediatrician Pete Fischer, had been charged with molesting a 14-year-old boy during a series of medical examinations. When Sampras's brother, Gus, relayed the news to him over the phone, "I was in a state of shock," Pete said last week. "I felt sick."
On May 15, Fischer, 55, was arraigned in Los Angeles Superior Court on three counts of child molestation and three of anal penetration with a foreign object. (The counts carry penalties ranging from one to eight years in prison.) The case involves a boy whom Fischer was treating for a growth defect, according to L.A. Deputy District Attorney Eloise Phillips, who says that the child's mother grew suspicious when her son's behavior changed after he began going to Fischer.
Fischer's attorney, Stephan DeSales, calls the charges unfounded and says Fischer was simply doing his job as a pediatric endocrinologist. "In the course of treating him with testosterone, Dr. Fischer did a prostatic examination [in which the physician inserts a finger into the patient's rectum to check the prostate], and he did this three times," DeSales says. The procedure was noted by Fischer in the medical record, DeSales says. Before bringing charges, Phillips says, she consulted the California Medical Board, which referred her to a doctor who said he found the procedure performed by Fischer to be improper. Phillips says Fischer is also being accused of masturbating the boy during the examinations.
Fischer was arrested on Feb. 20 by Downey, Calif., police, who did not charge him or release information about the case until last month, while continuing their investigation. A hearing is scheduled for June 19. Fischer is not allowed to practice medicine until the state medical board holds a separate hearing. "This has ruined his life," DeSales says.
Last Thursday, Fischer, who is free on his own recognizance, said, "I served my country in Vietnam. I believe 100 percent in the system. I'm innocent of any crime."
Asked if he had spoken to Sampras, who had beaten Clavet the day before, Fischer said, "I can't talk to Pete during the French, and I won't. Personally, I would appreciate, if this does come out, that it not come out during the French. He knows. But this could be the year he wins the French, and we want it."