Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Fans empathize with sagging Sampras

AP Sports Writer

        NEW YORK — These days, Pete Sampras is more like the rest of us, serves suddenly shaky, volleys capricious, mechanics off, mind wallowing in self-doubt.

        What tennis player hasn't felt that way at times?

        A match is going smoothly, rallies taking on a satisfying rhythm, then, mysteriously, everything is out of whack. All those lessons and magazine tips we've diligently memorized come flooding back in a frenzy of self-analysis.

        Is the elbow properly skyward, the racket head downward in the back-scratch position on serve? Is the toss high enough, forward enough? Should the serve be flatter or have more slice? Is the arm following through? Are the knees bent? Is the body turned 90-degrees for groundstrokes, the front foot stepping toward the net, the point of contact low, the finish high to impart peak topspin?

        The easy flow of movement gives way to herky-jerky motions. There is so much to remember and so little time to figure it out before another game is lost, and then one more, and then the match. We walk off shaking our heads or tossing our rackets, victims of too much thinking.

        For Sampras, tennis has always been so effortless. Or at least that's how he made it seem since he won the first of his record 13 Grand Slam titles at the U.S. Open in 1990. Certainly he had his struggles — playing through sickness and tears and injuries — but his game, itself, has always been so elegant, so fluid, so simple.

        Now he looks as if he's thinking way too much, like the rest of us, and in his misery we see ourselves. We recognize his vulnerability and empathize with him, rooting for him rather than merely marveling at him.

        Sampras and the Open fans were in wet limbo Monday until evening, the rain as incessant as it had been Sunday when Sampras and Greg Rusedski had to wait all day to play. Rusedski led 5-4 on serve when play was suspended.

        After waiting all day once more, they came back on court at 6:18 p.m., looking as if they both needed a shave. More than 3 hours later, Sampras secured a 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4 third-round victory, helped by fans who encouraged him with more affection than he had known in the years when he won so easily.

        “Shake it off, Pete,” one fan shouted after he clunked an overhead. “You're a champion,” another reminded him when he seemed to be sagging. “Let's go, Pete,” they all chanted to lift him for the last few games. Sampras looked around, taking it all in, riding their emotion and responding with uncharacteristic roars of his own.

        He needed the crowd. Brilliant one moment, inept the next, he alternated powerful passing shots with misses on the easiest of volleys. In the end, staying true to his style, forcing the action by coming forward, he broke Rusedski for the first time since the second set, crushing three passing shots and watching the Brit send a final forehand wide.

        For one fatiguing match against a dangerous player, Sampras showed that he is still a threat to beat anyone.

        “I'm enjoying winning these close matches,” Sampras said, though he acknowledged that he's “not quite as dominant as I once was.”

        He knows it was the third round and it takes seven victories to win the Open. Next up is No. 3 Tommy Haas on Tuesday. Sampras, the four-time champion and the runnerup the past two years, would have to win five matches in seven days to capture the title again.

        That's hard at any age and harder still at 31, as Sampras is. To do it at this tender moment in his career, when his confidence is down and his game is in disarray, would be almost inconceivable.

        “It's more difficult to recover from tough matches and be ready to go the next day,” Martina Navratilova was saying during the afternoon, talking about her own modest comeback attempts at 45 but adding that it applied to other aging players.

        Just like weekend hackers, the best pros crumble inexplicably and get into trouble trying to figure out what went wrong.

        “You lose twice serving for the match, it becomes a pattern,” she said. “Next time you're serving for the match — 'Oh, my God, can I serve it?' That's not just me, that's anybody that's been out there playing for a while. Then you start playing carefully. You have the shot, but you just want to make it instead of going for it.”

        Does she see that in Sampras?

        “Yup,” she said. “Definitely.”


        Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org


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