The Party's Over
The greatest generation of U.S. male players showed its age at Wimbledon
Listen closely in the stands at Wimbledon and you can hear the bells of St. Mary's Church. Last week they might have been tolling for the greatest generation of U.S. male players. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, all born within 22 months of each other, combined to win 25 Grand Slam singles tides, earn more than $100 million in prize money and claim the year-end world No. 1 ranking from 1992 to '99. Yet Courier wasn't even in this Wimbledon draw, and by the end of the second round the other three weren't either. Regardless of when Sampras, Agassi and Chang join Courier in retirement, it's hard to escape the conclusion that a gilded era has ended.
For Chang, 30, just reaching the second round was an achievement: It doubled his win total for the year. In 1996 Chang was No. 2 in the world. He never got the brass ring, and he hasn't been the same player since. He lost a step in quickness, and his deficit of power became easier to exploit. Chang, who won his only Grand Slam title at the 1989 French Open, is now struggling to stay in the top 100.
Agassi deserves heaps of credit for embracing fitness in his late 20s and transforming himself from a talented player into one of the greatest stars that tennis has known. But at 32 his odometer appears to be down to its last few clicks. Lately his ground game has resembled a cellphone connection unexpectedly going out of range. Last week he simply couldn't find the court in a straight-set loss to little-known Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand. Though Agassi won the Italian Open in May and was still ranked No. 4, he hadn't reached a Grand Slam final since the 2001 Australian Open.
The most puzzling case is Sampras. Two years ago at Wimbledon he achieved his long-stated goal of setting the career record for Grand Slam singles titles, with 13. Since then Sampras, 31, seems to have aged in dog years, and he hasn't won a title. Lately he hasn't merely been losing; he's been humiliated.
After laboring to beat British wild card Martin Lee in the first round, Sampras fell to No. 145-ranked George Bastl of Switzerland, a subjourneyman who before last week had never won a grass-court match in 10 years on the tour. Before the loss Sampras was ranked No. 13.
The week was equally brutal for all the other American men at Wimbledon, leaving the tournament without a U.S. player in the men's fourth round for the first time since 1922. But while the next generation of Americans can't be expected to replicate the achievements of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang, its failure last week was an aberration. Andy Roddick, 19; James Blake, 22; and Taylor Dent, 21, all have the game to do well on grass, and former NCAA champ Jeff Morrison, 23, made a surprise run to the third round.
Meanwhile, explanations for Sampras's stunningly precipitous decline vary greatly—which is telling in itself. "What he's going through is 90 percent mental," says Paul Annacone, the coach whom Sampras abruptly dispatched last winter. Sampras's current coach, Jos� Higueras, says, "It's more his needing to be aggressive, and he's not aggressive with anything except his serve." It's also clear that he has declined physically; time and again last week he hit his first volley with both feet behind the service line. Courier put it bluntly: "Pete's slow."
There is also what one Sampras confidant calls the Bridgette factor. During his six straight years as the sport's top player, Sampras was, necessarily, self-absorbed. Since marrying actress Bridgette Wilson in the fall of 2000, he claims he's never been happier, but the presence of a partner has changed his routine, and Wilson had influence in the major—and uncharacteristic—career changes that Sampras made earlier this year, including his switching agents.
"Pete's been so precise with his career for so long," says Courier. "At this stage simplicity would probably serve him pretty well."