Will Sampras find redemption?


THE tragedy of Pete Sampras is best appreciated through grammar, his fall most clinically measured in the subtle use of tenses. He is a great champion does not work anymore, a miscalculation of where he stands. He was, is a more adept use of language.

The tragedy of Pete Sampras can be interpreted through gestures. Like say a small movement of the hand. The type which Andre Gaudenzi used recently, after beating him in the first round of the French Open. At the net, he reached out to pat Pete on the back, as if in reassurance, as if to say "there, there, it's ok." It was a gesture that signified the march of time: this was Pete's pat, Pete's gesture of decency to all the small men who fell beneath his big game. Now, they pat him!

The tragedy of Pete Sampras also lies in numbers. Once, the only figures attached to him invoked awe. The digit 1 seemed to suit him best. It is a singular number that stands alone, away from the mob; it denotes a man who is at the head of the class (and he was, ending the year No. 1, six times consecutively). Or we could take 42, the millions he's earned, which is usually a figure reserved for painters of masterpieces and well he is that too. Or we might say 13, the number of Grand Slam titles he's won, which is best understood by saying that Agassi and Rafter and Kuerten and Safin have about that many put together.

Now, the numbers are less exalted. There is 26, for instance, his position in the ATP Champions Race (and to comprehend this clearly, let us point out that a David Nalbandian is at No. 25). We could also say 97, the unforced errors he made in that one match versus Gaudenzi. But as figures go, 29 and 23 define him most sharply: they are the number of tournaments, and months, respectively, that he has gone without a win.

This, then, is the player who comes to Wimbledon 2002.

Of course, this being Wimbledon, which should be hoisting his statue to stand beside Old Fred, where every blade of grass bows to Sampras as he does to the Duke, where for some years it might have been simpler to revert to the old Challenge Round and let Pete merely wait for a final opponent, we are tempted to dismiss all the evidence. We are inclined to put aside all matters of grammar, forget about gestures and disown the numbers. After all, everywhere else he was merely great; here he was God.

Sampras was made for Wimbledon, or so it seemed. His dominance was not chance but destiny. It is beyond coincidence that he has almost always worn white, his behaviour impeccable, his idol Laver not McEnroe. In a place that peddles tradition, he became one; in a tournament that is seemingly never-changing, he was the personification of constancy. And he played serve and volley like it never had been played, and always should be. In London's Saville Row a more perfect fit is not to be had.

But even this suit of Wimbledon immortality has a rent in it, a tear in the legend brought about by the sharp play of Roger Federer last year. The romantics would call it an aberration. Still, this wounded warrior is not without circumstantial advantage this year. Patrick Rafter remains in self-imposed exile, Goran Ivanisevic is having a shoulder repaired, Greg Rusedski is fading, Tim Henman is searching for nerve, Safin for a reason to play, and Mark Philippoussis, who swore he would win Wimbledon this year, is striving to prove he is more than just a tall tale. It leaves the baseliners, on unfamiliar ground.

And this is Sampras' most potent advantage: territory. He knows every court (usually he does not get past Centre, No. 1 or No. 2) and every skidding bounce; he has studied every nuance and mastered every grass court subtlety; he has withstood every wind and beaten back every cold; he knows the fit of the chair under him and the softness of the locker room towels; and he understands the occasion (indeed, he has a Grecian nose for it) better than any man alive or dead.

Recently, he said of clay, "I play my best tennis on instinct, but on clay, I tend to over-think it - 'Do I want to come in? Do I not want to come in?'" On grass, there is no hesitation: everything flows, he is a man in his element.

But still, for all this, the uneven opposition (though Hewitt has won Queens, and Agassi Wimbledon), the experience, the surface, the familiarity of Wimbledon, the problem with Sampras lies elsewhere. In his own mortality.

He is not suddenly surrounded by brilliant tennis players, it is more that he is not one of them anymore. Some players have improved, he has just got worse. It is almost if he is bewildered: what was once easy, is now improbably hard. It is a sign of a declining champion but declining champions are mostly blind to every sign. They have never been ordinary, so how then can they be now?

Sampras has hired Jose Higueras, a tough taskmaster who has demanded endless sweat on the practice court, but gifts lost cannot be restored through perspiration. With the loss of speed and timing and exactness has gone confidence; with the loss of confidence has come hesitation; with hesitation has come opportunity for the opponent. In short, he is still Pete Sampras and he isn't. He has the name but not the aura.

But here's the catch, and there was bound to be one. If there is anything and anywhere he can win, it is here. This is his Last Chance saloon. His last hardcourt Grand Slam title came at the Australian Open in 1997, but he has won four Wimbledon titles since then. To grass, his response is still Pavlovian.

His shot repertoire has shrunk, his tools rusty, but they are still grass court implements. The serve, first and second, the blocked return, the backhand slice, the overhead, the volley, the drop volley, the chip, the charge, he has them all. Even if fraying, it is a lethal package.

He will need a good draw, the courts not bouncing too high for the baseliners and no rain interruptions with two matches in two days. He will need, in short, a miracle, but he has wrought enough for us not to discount its possibility.

Pete Sampras has said he is still searching for that one conclusive Grand Slam title, that he is still capable of that one final surge of greatness to feel completed. It is almost a stubborn desire to prove he was not wrong to keep playing, and we were to say he was.

In a strange exchange, Pete Sampras plays these days less on talent than he does on hope, and to see a champion such is despairing, but also uplifting. When once we thought he had won enough Wimbledons, now we quietly wish for one more.

Maybe he will win this Pete Sampras and tell us, yes, we had had worked out the grammar, and interpreted the gestures and read the numbers. But it's what we could not see that eventually counts: the size of the heart of this champion.