<
>

Sampras soldiers on through slump

MASON, Ohio -- The year has been like a bad video game for tennis
star Pete Sampras, whose historic, surreal journey seems to have
entered a ghostly chamber fraught with uncertainty.

Can he -- will he -- find his way out of the maze that has left him
without a title in a career-long 16 tournaments? Or will conjecture
about his demise and "early" retirement continue to dominate the
questioning that's already growing as old as Sampras himself? He turns
30 on Sunday.

Plain and simple, the curly-haired, soft-spoken man who has won
more Grand Slams than anyone else in the game, is the victim of his
own good fortune.

"It's gotten a little carried away, this retirement talk, to be
honest with you," Sampras said. "But I'm judged at a much higher standard than anyone
else in the game. When I don't win Wimbledon every year, there's
always questions, and it's a pretty high bar to live up to each
year."

Sampras is ranked
No. 12 in the world, but he lost yet again on Wednesday at the Tennis Masters Series in Cincinnati. And while Sampras says he is not panicking about
his trifling year to date, he admits he's trying to sustain a level of
excellence in an era when the depth on the ATP Tour is creating
first-round havoc every week.

Second-seeded Andre Agassi lost his opener here Monday to
56th-ranked Gaston Gudio of Argentina. On Tuesday, third-seeded and
U.S. Open defending champion Marat Safin of Russia bowed out to
33rd-ranked Guillermo Canas of Argentina.

"It is tougher. No doubt about it," said Sampras, who captured
the first of his 63 titles in the 34th event of his career back in
1990. "There's a lot of depth, you know, from guys ranked 50 and
above. You can't take any match for granted. Five or six years ago,
you could maybe get a good draw here and there. But you look at the
field we have here and the field we've always had here, it's like a
Grand Slam, you know, and you can't look ahead in the draw. You can't
plan on who you're going to play in the third or fourth round."

This week's matches have been played in microwave-like heat, the kind of
sweltering atmosphere Sampras and comrades might well encounter in a few
weeks in New York at the U.S. Open. With the thermometer in the low
90s, little breeze to speak of, and the humidity heavy, the stadium
public address voice continually reminded the spectators to guard
against dehydration.

"This is serious out here today, so be careful," the
afternoon-session announcer warned.

On Tuesday, Sampras played most of the one hour, 18 minute match wearing a
white ballcap, which he said he almost never does.

Nor was he spurred on by the words of his detractors.

"The only thing I'm trying to prove is something to myself," he
reflected. "I've done everything I could ever do in the game and
some. So I'm just trying to prove it to myself and trying to prove
that I can still play at a top level.

"I think it gets more difficult as you get older when you don't
get what you want," he said. "You know, it's hard to say how many
Wimbledon chances I'll have over the next number of years, however
long I decide to play.

"So when you don't get it, it's not like you're 20 and you have
the next 12 years. You're hitting 30, and you don't have 12 years. So
it's an adjustment. In some ways, you can appreciate what I have done
at Wimbledon, that I've been dominant. This year was a big
disappointment."

Video games can be that way.