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Injured Sampras plays on

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2000


WIMBLEDON, England -- Pete Sampras is aching. Nothing new. History's greatest champion winces with medical mortality, seemingly old at age 28, repeatedly mugged by a physiological scattershooting of injuries.

Since early last year, Sampras has been bummed by a cranky shoulder, herniated disc, bad leg, hip flexor and quirky quadriceps. If it's a major tournament, you expect a new malady. Now, at Wimbledon, where stakes are highest, Pete's left shin is a royal pain. What's up now, doc?

British newspapers radiated in 1995 with headlines about a messed-up Sampras shoulder, but in the final he gritted to a smackdown of Boris Becker, the third of the gifted Californian's six Wimbledon gems. Pete camouflages his hurts.

Here's one it took us five years to learn about: His conquest of Goran Ivanisevic in 1994 was despite what Sampras coach Paul Annacone termed "a terribly painful ankle that Pete, in characteristic style, kept from the world."

Pete's persona is odd, even unfair. In a sport where Anna Kournikova gets an overload of attention while winning nothing of substance, Sampras is the dominator of a dozen Grand Slams who, for reasons mostly superficial, is somewhat historically muffled.

For instance, how loudly might we have cooed admiration had it been Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Junior Griffey or some other highly marketed jock hero who fought through pain in a second-round Wimbledon match against Karol Kucera in the Wednesday gloaming?

"His shin was afire, an attack of pain," Annacone said. "I saw Pete grimacing during warmup. This time, it's tendinitis. He can't even walk (Thursday) without limping."

In the last game of a 7-6 (11-9), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 grinder against the Czech, every Sampras serve became a full-blast try for an ace. Including every second serve. Pete was desperate to get it over.

Darkness was near. If the match hadn't ended with that game, Wimbledon officials were poised in a Centre Court end zone, having decided to step in and delay the finish until Thursday. Pete could've been unable.

Today, he meets Justin Gimelstob. "We won't know Pete's physical fate until a few minutes before match time," Annacone said. He's not touched a racket since Wednesday night. Thursday's assignment for Sampras was mental preparation, which meant watching television.

"It was a scary sight, Pete's shin buried in ice packs. Inflammatory drugs administered. Hoping the pain lessens. Praying maybe. But this is Wimbledon. Few athletes have as little quit in them as Pete Sampras."

Maybe, because Sampras plays with such grace, serving with seemingly effortless thunder, delivering those signature leaping overheads, covering the court with easy speed, there is significant public/media shortchanging of the fellow who has exceeded Laver, Budge, Tilden and all the grand 20th century others.

Pete is chided for being dull. So what's he supposed to do, get a few body piercings, or peroxide the wavy hair, or get booked for some sensational felony, or become Jerry Springer's pal? I'll take Sampras as is, an artistic marvel worthy of ultimate status, based on his ballplaying. He's no Mike Tyson.

"Of all these ailments, nothing affected Pete quite like the herniated disc that knocked him from the U.S. Open last summer," said Annacone, who played the global tour 10 years. "It's a shocker for any accomplished athlete to suddenly be whacked by a dose of mortality.

"Pete knew this tennis joy ride could end, permanently, with such a problem. Result is, he now appreciates more than ever the privilege and joy of competing at the highest level of tennis. Hoping it goes on for a few years more."

While wondering, what's next? Sampras used to live in Tampa. For years, his housemate was Delaina Mulcahy, but they never married. She eventually asked for a long-range commitment. Getting hitched. Never happened. Sampras wasn't willing.

Pete moved to Orlando, becoming a Lake Nona neighbor of golfer Ernie Els. An actress, Bridgette Wilson, would come into Sampras' life. It's something he doesn't talk about. Like all his tennis injuries.

I don't know if Wilson pressed for a deal, but what Pete did admit, after losing in the first round of last month's French Open, is that he and Bridgette are engaged.

"If he's fortunate enough to play Gimelstob and win, then Pete gets a break," Annacone said. "He'd be off Saturday and Sunday. Nothing helps tendinitis but rest, along with ice and anti-inflammatories. Right now, Sampras can use a little improvement in medical luck."

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