Mighty Pete appears to be wilting

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Former world No. 1 Pete Sampras has failed to capture a Grand Slam tournament off grass since 1997. And with his world ranking slipping, has the 13-time Grand Slam champion officially lost the stranglehold on his world tennis supremacy?

For a number of reasons, including his recent marriage to beautiful actress Bridgitte Wilson, Pistol Pete no longer has the burning desire to be No. 1. But he still believes he has the wares to compete against the game's youngest of guns.

Sampras has said that he's not going to perform in 20 to 25 tournaments a year like he used to. Instead, he'll play just enough to stay sharp for the Slams, i.e. Wimbledon, which he's captured four years running, and a remarkable seven times overall.

In his last three "major" events -- the 2000 U.S. Open, the 2000 Tennis Masters Cup and the 2001 Australian Open -- Pete has come up short in the firepower and willpower departments, which was never the case before when he was piling up the 13 Slam championships and a No. 1 ranking a record six years in a row. Marat Safin dismantled the legend in the U.S. Open final; Gustavo Kuerten bewildered him at the Masters Cup; and Todd Martin, his longtime whipping boy, shocked him in Melbourne.

But Sampras brushes aside the notion that it's time for him to clear out and give the "New Balls Please" generation its shot at Grand Slam glory.

"There's a lot of good young players, but no one who really scares me," said Sampras. "Andre Agassi is the one guy who can beat me when I'm playing well, but with Safin and Kuerten, even though they've beaten me, I feel like the match is on my racket."

But last week in Memphis (when the match was on his racket), the once-powerful Pete gave way to inconsistent fellow American Chris Woodruff, who upended the all-time great in straight sets, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, at the Kroger St. Jude. The setback dropped Sampras to 3-2 this year, including losses in his last two matches.

Sampras entered the Memphis tourney as a wild card, and probably got a fat guarantee just for showing up in Tennessee.

Pete's match wins this year have come against the likes of Karol Kucera (yawn), Bohdan Ulihrach (yawn), and Juan Ignacio Chela (asleep).

Sampras, currently 40th in the ATP Champions Race, said, "I just need to stay inspired and motivated, and that's my challenge." But I'd have to think that the younger players on the other side of the net may be a challenge as well.

Many people feel that Pete could retire tomorrow and be considered by many the greatest ever, but unlike fellow Open Era stalwarts Agassi and Jimmy Connors, Sampras hasn't captured Grand Slams on three different surfaces. The clay-court French Open continues to be Pete's Achilles heel, as the prolific serve-and-volley superstar's game has never quite translated to the dirt. Sampras' best-ever showing at Roland Garros was a semifinal appearance in 1996. And outside of that, he's basically been a non-factor at the Parisian Grand Slam showcase. As a matter of fact, Pete's failed to get past the third round at the French since '96.

Sampras has admitted that winning the French Open would be "a perfect career ender."

Since reaching last year's U.S. Open final, Sampras is a mortal 5-5 and has severely struggled to find his once-deadly game. Sure, the marriage to Wilson has probably been a factor in the recent demise, but there are no excuses on the ATP circuit...or any circuit for that matter.

Even with his place in tennis history already etched in stone, Pete's never been the most popular player among the fans. He's often criticized for being "soft" at times, for always being "injured," for being "boring," for never winning on clay, for bagging Davis Cup invites, etc.

But here's a guy who's won seven Wimbledon trophies...who's been a Top-5 player for a decade...who has played Davis Cup in the past...and who's anything but controversial. So let's give him the respect he deserves, even though he may or may not be the best tennis player on the planet anymore.

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