Sampras Knocked Out Wimbledon Tuneup

Friday, June 14th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HALLE, Germany (AP) _ Pete Sampras hopes the scene of his greatest triumphs will help revive his sliding career.

His latest try to halt the skid that his dropped him out of the top 10 for the first time since 1990 ended in a straight-set loss Thursday to Germany's Nicolas Kiefer at the Gerry Weber Open.

It was a premature end to Sampras' preparations for Wimbledon, where he hopes the revival will begin in less than two weeks.

``When you walk through those gates and onto the center court at Wimbledon, it lifts you a little,'' Sampras said. ``It brings back some good memories, some fortunate moments. Hopefully it'll happen again.''

Sampras acknowledged that this grasscourt warmup was a huge disappointment. Kiefer, ranked 64th in the world, took care of him with a 6-4, 6-3 win in just 66 minutes.

``It was a big week for me, I needed to reach the final,'' Sampras said.

This was the first time Sampras has failed to win two straight matches at a grasscourt event since Queens in 1998. In that Wimbledon warmup, he had a first- round bye and was beaten in the third round.

Then, Sampras went on to win his fifth of seven Wimbledon titles. Now, the early loss appears to be just another sign that the player some call the greatest ever is on the downside of his career.

Others believe all Sampras needs is his confidence back.

``Sport in general, and not just tennis, is about confidence and he's not as confident as he has been,'' said Tim Henman of Britain, a close friend and golfing partner. ``But I would think it would just take a couple of wins to click back in and he'd be dangerous again.''

Sampras himself says he can still win Wimbledon, where he has lost just twice in the last nine years.

``I'm sure that I can do it and I expect to do it,'' he said. ``It's the place I still have that aura, even if it isn't as strong as it used to be.''

Sampras fell from No. 1 on Nov. 13, 2000, a place he held most of the time since first reaching it in 1993.

Now he's slid No. 13, ending 11 years in the top 10. If only the results from this year were used, Sampras would be 26th.

In 2000, Sampras claimed his seventh title at Wimbledon and a record 13th Grand Slam title. But he hasn't won since, a drought that's now reached 29 tournaments.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov suggested he hang up his racket in April, after Sampras' loss to Spain's Alex Corretja at the Davis Cup.

``When I first heard it, I was offended. But I've always said that I'm going to stop on my own terms, not when someone thinks I should or how I should go out,'' Sampras said.

If Sampras is going to win another Wimbledon, he admits he's going to have to change his game.

The Kiefer match ended with Sampras backed into a corner, forced into a high awkward lob that dropped behind the backline.

That was one of the few times the German went to the net, instead choosing to slug it out from the back of the court. Sampras also rarely attacked Kiefer's serve by rushing the net, his bread-and-butter tactics for years.

``Five years ago you only needed some good serves and perfect volleys. The players are better today,'' Sampras said. ``It's especially important to play better from the baseline.''

Sampras said he will now head to Wimbledon to work on his game.

``I'm a firm believer that the hard work pays off,'' Henman said. ``But it must be extra hard for someone who's had the results that he's had to have those difficult losses. But I still think he fancies his chances at Wimbledon.''

In addition to himself, Sampras lists Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer as the favorites for Wimbledon. All are in their early 20s and weren't on the tour when he first won at the All-England club in 1993.

Sampras admits he's facing the biggest challenge of his career.

``I don't enjoy losing,'' Sampras said. ``It's a very, very big test for me, but I know I can get through it.''

Federer advanced to the quarterfinals with a 6-3, 6-4 rout of Germany's David Prinosil. Also, Denmark's Kenneth Carlsen beat Switzerland's Michel Kratochvil, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, Russian Mikhail Youzhny downed Andrei Pavel of Romania, 6-4, 6-0 and Germany's Alexander Popp beat Stefan Koubek, Austria, 6-4, 6-2.