WIMBLEDON, England -- History and heartbreak ride shotgun with Pete Sampras at Wimbledon.
Sampras is aiming for a third consecutive men's title as the greatest show on grass opens its two-week run today. The Wimbledon men's three-pete is a feat never accomplished by an American, and achieved by only four others this century.
But as he tries to haul himself into an elite Wimbledon club that includes the likes of Bjorn Borg and Fred Perry, Sampras remains burdened by the knowledge that his coach, Tim Gullikson, is back home in America undergoing treatment for malignant brain tumors.
For a 23-year-old who earns millions playing a game, the illness of a friend remains a shock and a reminder that tennis is neat and orderly, but that life is full of unpleasant surprises.
"Tim is 43," Sampras says. "To see what he has gone through has broken my heart."
Few realized how close player and coach were until January at the Australian Open. For the third time in three months, Gullikson collapsed with seizures and was hospitalized. He underwent tests. And then, only hours before meeting Jim Courier in the quarterfinals, Sampras was told the devastating news: Gullikson had cancerous tumors.
Down two sets in the match, Sampras heard a fan in the crowd shout that he should win it for his coach. He wept, rallied and won. It was a performance that forever altered his image as an elegant, if somewhat charisma-free player.
Suddenly, Sampras became a player known for his heart.
But this is not a made-for-television movie. Sampras is fighting for a title at Wimbledon while being guided by a fill-in coach, Paul Annacone. Meanwhile, Gullikson is engaged in a far more important struggle.
"When I'm on the court, I try not to think about Tim," Sampras says. "I've learned to deal with it. Tim is coming through his treatments like a champion. I have to do my part in his recovery -- go out and win."
But Sampras is no longer the game's dominant player. When he lost to Andre Agassi in the Australian Open final, he lost his No. 1 ranking. In the spring, without Gullikson to guide him, Sampras lost his confidence, enduring a clay-court season that began with a twisted ankle and ended with a first-round defeat at the French Open.
Now, Sampras has come home to Wimbledon to restart the season. Wimbledon always has been his dream tournament, the atmosphere and grass courts matching his classic serve-and-volley strokes. He remembers sitting in front of a television set and watching a 17-year-old Boris Becker win the men's title.
"I thought, 'God, that must be unbelievable to win Wimbledon,' " Sampras says. "You can't do more than that."
But Sampras has. He owns two Wimbledon titles.
"Three would be sweet," he says.
To get his third title, though, he'll have to start today against Karsten Braasch of Germany in a potentially tricky first-round match. Looming on his side of the draw is France's Guy Forget in the round of 16 and a possible semifinal test against Croatia's Goran Ivanisevic, last year's losing finalist.
And then there is Agassi, the fire to Sampras' ice, the No. 1 seed on the top of the draw. They do television commercials together now. They even play in exhibitions, such as the little slice of street theater they performed last week in the shadow of Nelson's Column in London's Trafalgar Square.
A Wimbledon final surely would seal the rivalry, giving a slumping sport its perfect match.
Friendly rivals? Sure. But are they really friends?
"We're not exactly going out to dinner every night," Sampras says. "But I know him well enough to talk to him and be normal. But you can only be so close. I'm trying to get back the No. 1, and he's trying to stay there. A lot is at stake."
Such as rankings. And prize money. But most of all, history.
Even when he was a teen-ager, Sampras had a grasp of the sport's fabled stories. Rod Laver was his idol. He trained with Ivan Lendl. He said he couldn't cope with the pressure after winning his first U.S. Open title, yet he eventually came to terms with the stress that victory demands.
He takes seriously his role as a tennis star.
On Thursday, Sampras stood inside St. Paul's Cathedral reading a verse of Kipling at a memorial service for Perry, the working-class tennis hero who died last winter. Sampras stumbled once, but it didn't matter, for his voice echoed loud and clear, one Wimbledon champion honoring another.
"If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you . . ." Sampras said, "yours is the Earth and everything that's in it. And -- which is more -- you'll be a man, my son."
SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS
Male players who have won at least three consecutive Wimbledon titles in this century:
H. Laurie Doherty .. 1902-06
Anthony Wilding .... 1910-13
Fred Perry ......... 1934-36
Bjorn Borg ......... 1976-80
Karsten Braasch, Germany, vs. Pete Sampras (2), Tampa, Fla.; Mark Petchey, Britain, vs. Mats Wilander, Sweden; Gabriela Sabatini (8), Argentina, vs. Lea Ghirardi, France
Sebastien Lareau, Canada, vs. Goran Ivanisevic (4), Croatia; Sabine Appelmans, Belgium, vs. Kimiko Date (6), Japan; Lionel Roux, France, vs. Michael Chang (5), Henderson, Nev.
Other selected seeds
Stephanie Rottier, Netherlands, vs. Amy Frazier (12), Rochester Hills, Mich.; Daniel Vacek, Czech Republic, vs. Wayne Ferreira (7), South Africa; Helena Sukova (16), Czech Republic, vs. Anna-Maria Cecchini, Italy
Todd Martin (14), Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., vs. Nicolas Pereira, Venezuela
Bryan Shelton, Atlanta, vs. Richard Krajicek (12), Netherlands
Guy Forget (16), France, vs. Gary Henderson, Britain