- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England Pistol Pete has the standard in his sights.
In five days, Pete Sampras could hoist a piece of history on Wimbledon's Centre Court. Despite a touch of tendinitis, the 28-year-old is barreling through the bracket toward a seventh bow at Wimbledon and a record 13th Grand Slam title.
If Sampras can accomplish the feat, pulling ahead of Roy Emerson in the all-time Slam standings, the tennis world will be forced to evaluate his place in history. Will Sampras then be considered the game's greatest, or will he simply be labeled a one-surface Superman a god on grass, a mere human on the hardcourt and a downright commoner on clay?
"I'm not thinking about it, to be honest with you," Sampras said yesterday after dismissing Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 to advance to tomorrow's quarterfinals. "If I get myself in a position where I'm on the verge [of making history], then, sure, it will cross my mind. But you can't play these two weeks like you're playing for history. You've got to play like you're playing another Wimbledon."
The two seem to merge every time Sampras takes the turf at Centre Court. Should Sampras win this week and there isn't a seeded player left in his half of the bracket Sampras would tie William Renshaw's Wimbledon record for career men's singles titles. Renshaw, whose last title came in 1889, hardly qualifies as a legitimate match to the game's modern-day grass-court leviathan.
Including yesterday's rout, Sampras has a stunning 56-5 record at Wimbledon. Only five-time champion Bjorn Borg (51-4), who won 41 straight matches at Wimbledon between 1976 and 1981, can claim such a platinum winning percentage at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
Yesterday, Sampras faced just one break point in dismantling Bjorkman, a streaking player who hadn't dropped a set during the fortnight until he ran into Sampras.
"I am extremely disappointed in the way I played," Bjorkman said. "But [Sampras] was really on… . It's pretty difficult to adjust to a guy who's hitting second serves 120 miles per hour and picking his spots."
Yet even as Sampras was busy tying his personal best of 25 straight victorious matches at Wimbledon, his critics were crowing in the media center.
"Even if he wins this week, I don't think you can rank him with Emerson or [Rod] Laver," tennis historian and television analyst Bud Collins said. "Sampras hasn't won the French [Open], and I think that's a major chink in his armor."
Ah, it always comes back to the clay at Roland Garros for Sampras slammers.
Sampras has been almost invincible at Wimbledon, winning six times in the past seven years. He also has won four U.S. Opens and two Australians though he has been shut out in the Slams for more than three years except on the fast grass of Wimbledon. But for most observers, his lack of a French Open title stands out as a glaring gap on his resume.
In fact, Sampras has made the semis just once in 11 trips to Roland Garros. In contrast, both Emerson and Laver (11 Grand Slams) won each leg of the Slam at least twice.
Laver, astoundingly, completed the season Slam twice, in 1962 and 1969 (Don Budge is the only other man to ever record a season Slam). More astounding, Laver won his 11 Slams even though he did not compete in the major championships during the prime of his career. Laver turned professional in 1963, when only amateurs were eligible to compete at the majors, and did not compete again at a Slam until pros were allowed to play with the beginning of the Open era in 1968.
"What [Laver] did is almost unthinkable," Sampras said last year. "That's why he's always been my idol. That's why you have to consider him the greatest to ever pick up a racquet."
Still, Sampras could well cement his claim as the game's top closer amid Sunday's strawberries-and-cream crowd. The fact is, when Sampras gets to a Grand Slam final, he almost never stumbles. Nobody else in the game's premier pantheon can touch his 12-2 record in Slam finals. And if yesterday's performance is any indication, neither his nagging left shin (he won't practice between matches the rest of the week) nor any of the unseeded rabble left in Sampras' half of the bracket can stop him from reaching this year's final.
"It's definitely not going to go away overnight," Sampras said, admitting his leg was still smarting during his destruction of Bjorkman. "But, you know, it's not an injury that's career-threatening. I'm not going to rip anything. It's sore. That's pretty much it… . My body has been fragile over the last couple of years. But this is our biggest tournament, and I'm going to play it, do whatever I can to get to the weekend here… . At the moment, I'm pretty confident."
And against Bjorkman, Sampras was far more demonstrative than usual. When Sampras broke the Swede early in the second set, hitting three consecutive backhand winners (though the backhand return is supposedly his grass-court Achilles), he pumped his fists and uncorked a primal scream at Centre Court. He growled in pleasure again in the third set after erasing Bjorkman's lone break opportunity with three straight aces. And moments after the match ended, Sampras uncharacteristically turned to the crowd and shouted once more with both arms raised in a mock muscle-flexed pose.
Perhaps the outpouring of emotion came from his triumph over the pain in his leg. Perhaps it resulted from his feeling that Bjorkman and others doubt the legitimacy of his injury. Or perhaps it just flowed from a near-flawless performance.
"My goal today was to have some fun," said Sampras, who explained that his coach Paul Annacone told him to be more intense after his lackluster third-round victory over Justin Gimelstob. "I think my body language against Justin was pretty poor. Paul and people said, 'Show a little more energy,' not only for myself but for my opponent and the crowd. I made an effort to do that, to show a little more emotion.
"The way things went today, I was very pleased. I returned well, got my second serve going and served big [17 aces]. That's really the key to grass… . I found my zone a little bit today."
Welcome to Pete's party.

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