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 lately.
"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 [run-of-the-mill] tournament."