At less than best, Sampras too good


WIMBLEDON, England - They brought out Bjorn Borg, who kissed the grass, and John McEnroe, who waved to the roaring crowd.

There was a 1930s star named Bunny Austin seated in a wheelchair with a blue blanket draped over his legs and a 1990s legend named Steffi Graf striding in dress shoes across a red carpet.

And after the parade of champions finally passed by, Wimbledon handed over its Centre Court of dreams to the greatest modern player of them all - Pete Sampras.

With his boyhood heroes watching, left shin hurting and place in tennis history beckoning, Sampras beat Justin Gimelstob, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, yesterday.

This wasn't vintage Sampras, but it was good enough to pull him into the round of 16 and keep alive his hope of winning a seventh Wimbledon and 13th Grand Slam title.

He was hurting yet playing, rusty one moment, electrifying the next. He hadn't practiced since emerging from his second-round win over Karol Kucera with tendinitis that spread from the top of his left foot to his shin.

He skipped the parade of past champions brought together by Wimbledon to celebrate the "Millennium Championships." And for a few moments, it looked like he should have skipped the match.

"My racket felt like a foreign object," Sampras said.

His first serves were flying wildly - he served four double faults to lose his first service game and gave away the set with another double fault. Up in the royal box, the likes of Borg and Rod Laver looked on.

"At one point, I wanted to throw my racket up there - they could play for me," he said.

He didn't need the help.

Playing hurt often brings out the best in Sampras.

"Do you ever remember him losing injured?" Gimelstob said. "What's his record injured? Have you ever seen him lose when he stepped on the court?"

Out on his feet, sick with grief or sick to his stomach, Sampras has shown throughout his career that he can overcome almost any obstacle.

"Well, playing hurt is something I've learned to deal with over the years," he said, adding that at this tournament, he's using the NBA championship performance of Kobe Bryant as an "inspiration."

"You know, I'm not playing and risking my career by playing this tournament," Sampras said, referring to Bryant.

All that is at stake is his reputation - and place among the game's legends.

His serve sets Sampras apart. Asked what he thinks makes Sampras' serve so devastating, Gimelstob said, "Well, probably when he came out of his mother's womb, God spent a little extra time on his right shoulder, just kind of touched it, so that helps.

"He's got a beautifully smooth action," Gimelstob said. "He could go to every spot with the same toss. He's confident, so he goes for big second serves. And he backs it up well. It's a good combination."

And that's just the serve.

"He's the best athlete on tour in terms of jumping and running, intangibles," Gimelstob said. "I think that's the thing that goes unnoticed. He puts a lot of pressure on you athletically - do a little more with the volley, do a little bit more with the approach."

Gimelstob, part of America's new tennis generation, was aware of the history and legends swirling around Centre Court. He approached the moment with a touch of class - and humor - peering up to the royal box during the warm up, and, near the end of the match, glancing up again, making eye contact with Laver and deciding, "I can't just fade into the sunset in that last game."

"I saw Borg with a really hot girl in the front row," he said. "I was looking at her. I thought, 'OK,, if I play here, maybe I have a shot' [for a date]. Then I saw Borg, and I'm like, 'Probably not going to happen.' At the end I saw Laver. That was it: the hot girl, Borg, then Laver."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad