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Is end nigh for Pete? This week, we'll know

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2001


WIMBLEDON, England -- You've seen the cracks in his game. And you've probably heard the whispers and innuendoes, the behind-the-back gossip about how the end is near for Pete Sampras.

WIMBLEDON, England -- You've seen the cracks in his game. And you've probably heard the whispers and innuendoes, the behind-the-back gossip about how the end is near for Pete Sampras.

The watch is on.

This is the way it usually happens. An athlete rockets to the top of a sport, stays there for several years amassing untold fame and fortune. Then, as soon as he approaches age 30 and the results begin to slide even a little, the call goes out and people start looking skyward, wondering when the first buzzards will arrive.

So it is with Pete.

After dominating the tour for most of the 1990s, Sweet Pete isn't tennis' top dog anymore. He's still up there, just not the end all and be all anymore, and that has people wondering just how much is left on his dance card.

His six-year hold on the year-end No. 1 ranking ended in 1999 when he finished third, the same place he ended the 2000 season. He recently got married and turns 30 in August. Do you see where this is going?

Well, we won't have to wonder much longer. This week, when Wimbledon gets down to the matches that really matter, should tell us what we want to know. We should at least get a clue, if not a straightforward answer.

Pete survived the first week with little trouble, struggling only in a five-set second-rounder against some British chap named Barry Cowan. But, frankly, he hasn't dazzled anyone.

He has unseeded Roger Federer next, then either one-time Wimbledon finalist Tim Henman or U.S. Open finalist Todd Martin. U.S. Open champion and fourth seed Marat Safin looms in the semifinals.

"I wonder if he'll take a little extra time to work on a few things and sharpen up a little bit because he's been getting through (his matches) but he's not playing quite up to his standard," said former Wimbledon finalist Jim Courier, part of Turner Sports' broadcast team here. "You know he's going to run into someone in the second week as we go on who's going to get super hot, (who's) going to have a little more game than Barry Cowan has. If he runs into someone like a Greg Rusedski who's serving well, returning well, he's going to have to be a different Pete Sampras to get through."

Thing is, the identity of the opponent never really mattered to the old Pete. At Wimbledon, he would beat just about anyone that dared to stand across the net from him, sweeping seven of the past eight Wimbledon singles crowns.

This place has always been the center of his personal universe, the one spot where everything always falls his way. He has, as he admitted the other day, an aura here.

Last year he staggered in here a struggling champion in desperate need of a title, yet he skipped away with crown in hand. No matter what, Pete always seems to have Wimbledon as a best friend.

So it is with great anticipation that we watch him here this week. Like last year, he finds himself in a bit of a pickle. Title-less. Slumping. And carrying more reasons to rest on his laurels than ever before, secure in his place as the game's greatest of all time.

So, the question begs. Does he still want it bad enough to walk across a bed of rusty nails to get to it? And, more important, can he still do it?

"I always feel like when it comes to this tournament that I'm still the man to beat," he said upon his arrival. "That's kind of how I look at it."

It's usually not a good idea to doubt the athletic capacities of the great ones. If we've learned anything from people like Michael Jordan, Mario Lemieux and Cal Ripken, it's that logic and conventional wisdom don't always apply to them.

That said, you have to be seriously worried right now if you're a Pete Sampras fan. He has been getting walked on lately. He has reached just one final this season (Key Biscayne in late March) and had won just one match since then before the grass-court season.

Ever heard of Harel Levy or Alex Calatrava? How about Galo Blanco? Pete has. They've all beaten him within the past two months. And last week, some nobody named Barry Cowan almost did.

If you ask me, Pete is cooked. He'll get past Federer, but not much further. Maybe not past Henman if they meet in the quarterfinals.

Pete's Grand Slam winning days, I'm afraid to say, are pretty much over.

He could prove me wrong this week, summoning another cache of magic to carry him to his fifth straight Wimbledon singles title, tying the great Bjorn Borg for the men's modern record.

Yeah, he could do it. That is, if the buzzards don't get him first.

Wimbledon

TODAY ON TV: 10 a.m., Ch. 8; 1 p.m., TNT.

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