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Sampras' emotions overflow


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 10, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England -- King Peter VII. He's the Wimbledon reign man, also rain man. Neither Britain's drippy weather nor Australia's spunky Patrick Rafter could dry Centre Court's glory gush for Pete Sampras.

History is big in this Old World neighborhood. Sampras made some more. When the match ended, with four hours of delays before and during it because of British drizzles, the Sunday sky was funereal gray and it was a few ticks before 9 in the championship evening.

Sampras' smile lit the night.

Seeing his parents, never before in the house for a major Sampras conquest, the modest fellow who lives in Orlando uncharacteristically flooded tears, eventually burying a face of emotions in gifted hands.

Only one person has won as many Wimbledon men's singles titles as the gentle, 28-year-old American. A fellow named William Charles Renshaw won seven in the late 1800s. And nobody has ruled more Grand Slams (13) than Georgia and Sam Sampras' tennis prince.

"My dad's a little different from Richard Williams," Pete joked, referring to the father of tennis wonder women Venus and Serena, champions of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. "Sam Sampras won't be making any signs to flash at Centre Court."

Only once before in their son's $40-million career had Pete's folks attended a Grand Slam. Georgia and Sam went to New York for a U.S. Open final in 1992. Sampras lost to Stefan Edberg. "They get really nervous," Sampras said. "They're not your typical tennis parents. They're always there for me to lean on but seldom visible to anyone else. This time I wanted them at Wimbledon for the finish, win or lose.

"In the first set, when I messed up the tiebreaker, I thought I was doomed. It was extra motivation to rally and win. Otherwise, my mother and father might never again show up.

"Getting older, I'm more sentimental. As wonderful as it feels to win a seventh Wimbledon and get my 13th Slam, it's something I cannot fully appreciate now, so soon after winning.

"It takes time. Reflection. Perspective. In a few months, or years, this Wimbledon will sit like a shining star."

Even though Sam, a retired engineer, and Georgia keep their distance from icon Pete, the family is very involved in the sport. Pete's sister, Stella, is a tennis coach at UCLA. His brother, Gus, is executive director of the ATP Tour stop in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Pete lived in Tampa for several years with girlfriend Delaina Mulcahy. Their relationship broke up, and Sampras moved to Lake Nona, near Orlando International Airport. Last month, he announced his engagement to actor Bridgette Wilson.

"I turn 29 next month, and the tennis challenges aren't getting easier," he said. "There is more talented, tougher competition than ever. As you age, the body becomes more fragile. But it's my hope to play well for a few more years. Then, when I'm done, I can come back to Wimbledon and watch from the Royal Box."

He's the god of tennis grass, winning seven Wimbledons in the past eight years, compiling a 53-1 record, losing during the wondrous run to 1996 champion Richard Krajicek in the quarterfinals.

"Rafter and I were both loaded with nerves," Sampras said, "me choking away the first-set tiebreaker with double faults, then Pat losing control in the second-set tiebreaker despite being up 4-1 and serving." It was a tantalizing, agonizing match that raced daylight to a stirring climax.

It's another red, white and blue double, with Venus Williams and Sampras sweeping the singles. Like last year, when the United States struck with Lindsay Davenport and ubiquitous Wimbledon hero Sampras.

Roy Emerson, who had shared the Slam high of 12 titles with Sampras, watched the moist marathon from the Royal Box. "I had the record for so long," the 63-year-old Aussie said, "I'm sorry to see it go, but it's terrific that such a classy gentleman and extraordinary player like Pete Sampras takes over."

Sampras has four U.S. Open championships and two at the Australian Open to go with the seven Wimbledons. But never a French Open trophy.

"I'll keep trying, although the odds are against me on the Paris clay," he said. "It would be nice to complete the Slam cycle, but I feel huge satisfaction from already winning far more than I could've ever dreamed."

Wimbledon tennis has gone on for 124 years. Renshaw was seven times the singles champ when only locals competed. Nobody matched the total until now.

Renshaw died in 1904.

King Peter VII plays on.

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