Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Pete Sampras has clearly established himself as one of the greatest tennis players of all-time. But can the aging American match the legendary Bjorn Borg by capturing a fifth straight Wimbledon championship next month?
Sure, the brilliant Sampras has captured an incredible seven Wimbledons over the last eight years, but only the somber, steely Borg has piled up five titles in succession on the men's side in the Open Era at the storied All England Club.
Sampras is a remarkable 53-1 on the ancient lawns since losing to three-time Wimbledon runner-up Goran Ivanisevic in 1992. Pete's only loss there over the last eight years came against eventual champion Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands in the 1996 quarterfinals.
But Sampras has not quite hit his stride heading into the 2001 fortnight. He was playing his classic serve-and-volley game at The Stella Artois Championships last week before being stunned by Aussie Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals at the grass-court Wimbledon tune-up. It appeared as though Sampras was well on his way to a title in London, Queen's before Hewitt rallied to stop the powerful American in three sets en route to capturing a second straight Stella Artois crown.
Pete Sampras embraces the Wimbledon trophy after winning his fourth-consecutive Wimbledon championship last year.
(Photo by Empics)
Sampras, who had struggled all season long heading to Queen's, looked as if he'd righted the ship by rolling to a 3-0 mark in his first grass-court action of the year, before getting upended by the fiery Hewitt.
That loss could lead one to believe that Pete might not steamroll the competition this year at the world's premier tennis showcase. Maybe it'll be Hewitt's year. Maybe Andre Agassi will add to his seven Grand Slam titles with a second Wimbledon championship. Could the popular Patrick Rafter, a two-time U.S. Open champion, breakthrough with his first-ever Wimbledon trophy? Or will the "next Pete" -- Andy Roddick -- ride his nearly-unstoppable 140-mile-per- hour serve to his first Grand Slam title at the tender age of 18?
The surging Roddick stunned Sampras in straight sets at the lucrative Ericsson Open in their lone career meeting back in March.
Borg caught the imagination of the sports world over 20 years ago by rattling off five straight perfect Wimbledon runs -- all by the age of 24 from 1976-80 -- with a mind-boggling 35-0 record that would stretch to 41-0 before he finally lost to the formidable John McEnroe in the 1981 final. Borg, of course, stopped Johnny Mac the year before in a knockdown, dragout slugfest that many believe is the greatest tennis match of all-time.
Clearly, Sampras will have his hands full if he wants to match Borg -- starting next week on the archaic turf in jolly old England.
By winning his seventh Wimbledon crown last year, Sampras became the all-time leader with 13 Grand Slam titles among the men.
I think Pete feels invincible at the All England Club, but I'm not so sure he's all the way back since his struggles started with last year's dismantling at the hands of Marat Safin at the U.S. Open.
As recently as last week, I thought Pete would indeed, dare I say it, five- peat at Wimbledon over the next few weeks. But now I'm not so sure following his three-set loss to Hewitt at "The Stella."
Pete, seeded second in Queen's, had trouble with the breeze on a cool, overcast Sunday in London Town.
"I had a hard time with my volleys and my ball toss," he said. "But also, Lleyton was playing very well."
Sampras, however, seemed unfazed by the setback. "It would have been nice going into Wimbledon having won a tournament," Sampras said. "But I've got a few matches under my belt. I feel pretty good."
Bjorn Borg caught the imagination of the sports world over 20 years ago by rattling off five straight perfect Wimbledon runs.
(Photo by Empics)
If Sampras' serve is on at the All England Club, he can do it again.
Pete's only played in 10 tournaments (15-10) this year -- an average of less than two events per month. You can't exactly fine-tune your game with that kind of inactivity.
One thing the 29-year-old Sampras does have going for him is the shear intimidation factor at Wimbledon. Perhaps no one thinks they can beat him in what has become "his house." Hewitt has handled his American counterpart in the last two finals at The Stella Artois...but Wimbledon is not The Stella Artois.
Sampras is 1-2 in his grass-court career against Hewitt, including the lone victory against him in the 1999 Stella Artois semis. The two have never met at Wimbledon, but over the next few weeks, that fact is obviously subject to change.
Hewitt appears to have Pete's number right now on grass -- a familiar surface to any Aussie. Hewitt's countryman Rafter was last year's Wimbledon runner-up to Sampras, who was able to outserve-and-volley his fellow serve-and-volley stalwart.
Should Sampras advance to this year's Wimbledon final, let's not forget he's a perfect 7-0 at that stage of the tournament on Centre Court at London SW19. Equally as remarkable, Pete has lost his serve only four times in the seven finals.
Sampras bowed out of the recent French Open in the second round, but he feels he'll have no problem regrouping for Wimbledon.
"If you can't get motivated for Wimbledon -- that's our Super Bowl -- you shouldn't be playing," said the Grand Slam king.
Sampras has been designated as the top seed, again, this year, and will open his 2001 Wimbledon run against Spanish clay-courter Francisco Clavet. Pete's potential quarterfinal opponents could be Englishman Tim Henman or fellow American Todd Martin, who stunned Sampras in the fourth round of this year's Australian Open.
My guess is he's ready for yet another run at his home away from home.