I'm not done yet, says Sampras

by ALAN FRASER, Daily Mail

However fitting it might seem, Pete Sampras does not intend to bow out of tennis in two weeks' time should he win Wimbledon for the fourth year in a row and the eighth time in all.

A 'total misquote' was how Sampras yesterday described a report in The Sunday Telegraph claiming the American would call it a day if he were to win again.

What Sampras actually said, in a television interview with former world No.1 Jim Courier, was: 'In a perfect scenario, you'd love to play your last match here and win it and call it a career. Who knows what's going to happen in the future. We'll see.'

The only condition Sampras would attach yesterday to the question of how long he would continue playing was 'as long as I'm still enjoying it'.

One thing he will not enjoy today is the result of a rare change of tradition by the All England Club which could adversely affect Sampras as he begins the defence of his title.

The start of play has been brought forward by one hour. 'At precisely 2pm' - the phrase which encapsulated the clockwork efficiency of Wimbledon, referring to the time that the defending men's champion walks on to Centre Court on the first day of the Championships -becomes 'at precisely 1pm' this year.

'I am afraid that because it is one o'clock there will be more people having lunch and it will be only half full,' Sampras told Sportsmail.

'Maybe, that special atmosphere which I have experienced so many times will not be quite the same.'

He will arrive at the locker room at 12.15pm instead of 1.15pm and wait for his match to be called by a club member, who will lead him on to the court he knows so well and on which he feels so comfortable.

This is all ritual and nothing to do with superstition. Sampras does not have a superstitious bone in his body. But for the first time he will deliberately select the same locker as last year. 'That was a special one - a special Wimbledon, I mean.'

How can he follow that? How can he follow achieving the record number of wins in front of his parents, who had never previously been to Wimbledon, and with his fiancee Bridgette Wilson, now his wife, watching?

His own words say he cannot, even if an eighth victory is secured. 'It was a story-book ending,' he said. 'You can't top that. I know that last year was as good as it is going to get.'

Despite his protestations about being sufficiently motivated, that sort of language makes Sampras more vulnerable this fortnight than many for years.

He has been trying to make the right noises. 'The intensity is always there when I walk on to Centre Court,' he said. 'That gives me my motivation and a rush to the system.

'Things worked perfectly against Pat Rafter in the final last year but there is no reason why I can't have the same two weeks this year and play well.

'I have won a major for every year of my career since 1993 and that will be my focus over the years. I will play for moments like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.'

Only the Grand Slams stir his competitive juices these days. He can barely bring himself to enter other events. Such a strategy, however, has the danger of leaving him dangerously underprepared for the main championships.

He said: 'I recognise the dilemma. In order to play well at Slams I have to maintain some form in other events which I find harder to get up for. You can't just turn it on.

'I have to force myself to play a bit more - which I am going to do. I have to try to play a little more consistently. That can only help the aura you need at any Slam. When guys know you are playing well and they go, oh, oh.'

The reaction to Sampras in the past 12 win- less months has been more tut, tut than oh, oh. But this is the greatest grasscourt player who has ever lived, one who has lost only two of his last 60 singles matches at Wimbledon - against Richard Krajicek in the 1996 quarter-final and against Goran Ivanisevic in the 1992 semi-final.

It is a record which makes the following sound not in the least bumptious.

'I still have the aura here, even though the year has not been great.'

When the aura goes, an era will end.

Grasscourt players are a dying breed as baseliners take over tennis. Changing circumstances have led to prominent figures like Britain's own John Lloyd calling for the All England Club grass to be dug up.

Sampras regards that as sacrilege. 'I still think it will be played on grass in 50 years' time. I don't think they will change it. I don't think they should change it,' he said.

'The game will change, however. In the near future you will have two baseliners playing in the Wimbledon final. There are only a handful of really great grass-court players around, only a handful of great serve and volleyers. The future of the game, the young guys, are primarily baseliners, with the exception of Tim Henman and Pat Rafter and a couple of others.

'More and more Agassi types will win Wimbledon.'

Sampras would like to think - not yet.

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