Tuesday, August 10, 1999

Sampras' No. 1 goal: enjoy himself


After 6 years on top, he'll cut schedule

BY MICHAEL PERRY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MASON — Last year, Pete Sampras had a chance to make history.

        No men's tennis player had ever been ranked No. 1 at the end of six consecutive years. Sampras wanted to be that guy. All season long, he kept his eye on the rankings. When he fell out of the top spot, he would say it was the season-ending poll that mattered.

        When the dust settled, there he was — No. 1 again. Mission accomplished. He did not, however, enjoy the ride.

        “If you want something bad enough, you'll do whatever it takes, and I was willing to do it,” Sampras said after a practice at the ATP Tennis Center. “But I wouldn't do it again.

        “People ask me if it was worth it. I say kind of. It was a great accomplishment, but it definitely took a lot out of me.”

        That is why he is taking a different approach to the rest of his career.

        Sampras, the top seed at the Great American Insurance ATP Championship, will face Jan Siemerink at 7 p.m. today on Center Court.

        Still ranked No. 1, Sampras vows to enjoy himself more, to

        only play tournaments when he wants to and not to protect his ranking.

        “It's time to just chill out here for a second and have some sort of a normal life,” Sampras said.

        Life has been anything but normal for Sampras since he broke into the top 10 in 1990. He has been No. 1 more weeks than any player ever (272) and his 12 Grand Slam titles are tied with Roy Emerson for the most in men's tennis history.

        Sampras, who turns 28 on Thursday, has been the dominant player in the game for most of this decade.

        “To stay No. 1, tennis has to be your life. It really does,” he said. “And not just for a couple months, but for years and years and years. It has to be an obsession, and it has been. It's hard to say if it will be the next three or four years.

        “I've achieved what I wanted to achieve from a ranking standpoint. I'm not saying I don't want to be No. 1. I appre ciated it all the years. But it always will be about the majors. That will keep me in the game.”

        Conquering a sixth consecutive No. 1 ranking wore down Sampras so much that he was unable to start the 1999 season. He put a lot of pressure on himself and felt he needed a break. He skipped the Australian Open, which he has won twice and hadn't missed since '92. He did not play until San Jose in February.

        Sampras started the year 11-6 and didn't really get going until June, when he won Queen's Club, a Wimbledon warm-up in London. He then won his sixth Wimbledon title, and captured the Mercedes-Benz Cup in Los Angeles nine days ago. He has won 17 straight matches.

        But it has been a year of reflection more than anything. Sampras said he doesn't put himself in the same category as Michael Jordan, John Elway and Wayne Gretzky, but the retirements of those superstars got him thinking.

        He remains as intense and competitive as ever once he steps on the court, but Sampras figures to cut back his schedule to allow more personal time. That will likely affect his ranking, especially next year when the players start with a clean slate Jan. 1.

        No matter. Sampras said he is at a crossroads and is deciding what he wants to achieve in the next three or four years. Even next year, when players will receive zero points if they miss a Grand Slam or Mercedes Super 9 event, Sampras said he may not play in all 13 major tournaments.

        He is even trying to handle losses better.

        “Sure, over the years I've put a lot into the game, and I'm not sure I'm willing to play all the tournaments that it takes to stay No. 1,” he said. “It's time to enjoy it and let people know I'm enjoying it out there.

        “I'm still figuring out what my goals are. It's something I have to think about in the next four, five months.”

        His newfound attitude was tested in May when Carlos Moya replaced Sampras as No. 1.

        Sampras' first reaction: “That's not right.”

        “But when I won Wimbledon, it was just like, whatever ... ” he said. “Just because you're No. 1 on the computer doesn't mean you're the best player in the world.”

       



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