Pete Sampras’ coach will not be coming to the U.S. Open when it begins Monday. Just as he missed the French Open and Wimbledon, another Grand Slam tournament will slip away without Tim Gullikson.
Sampras is here, missing his coach, but longing for his friend more. The bond between Sampras and Gullikson has knitted itself into something more profound since Gullikson underwent a biopsy, which revealed four identical finger-like tumors growing in his brain, a type that is slow growing but malignant.
Gullikson, 43, accepted the news with fear but a coach’s orderly and meticulous planning to conquer another opponent. Sampras, 24, was stunned into contemplating what young and strong athletes rarely dwell on: human mortality.
“It just put everything into perspective,” Sampras said. “For the past 23 years of my life, things have been going along pretty smoothly. Then the death of Vitas [Gerulaitis], and Tim’s illness. It kind of opened my eyes to how vulnerable we all are. It happened so quickly. Tim’s a healthy guy, 43 years old, and suddenly he gets cancer. That showed me how vulnerable we all are.”
Even as Gullikson remained at his home in Wheaton, Ill., Sampras found a way to take a part of his friend with him on the road. Sampras has gleaned the best parts of his coach and his lessons. What Gullikson is teaching Sampras now about courage and optimism in the face of overwhelming odds is the kind of life lesson that is at once valuable and painful.
For months Sampras had clung to the flimsy hope that Gullikson’s brave claim--"I’ll be back by the Open"--would come true. A month ago it became clear that Gullikson wasn’t going to make the trip.
“He’s not going to be able to,” Sampras said. “He had to do a fourth round of [chemotherapy]. He’s just a little tired. He’s not going to be doing any traveling for a while. He knows that his health is the most important thing.”
Gullikson missed Wimbledon this year, the first time in 20 years he hadn’t been at tennis’ biggest event. He watched on television, with friends gathered at his home as Sampras beat Boris Becker to win the title, which he dedicated to Tim.
Tim’s twin brother, Tom, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, was in the players’ box at Wimbledon, cheering for Sampras. In fact, Sampras said the sound of Tom’s voice--so similar to Tim’s--shouting his nickname, “Pistol,” gave him encouragement.
Sampras had appeared lost and adrift during the spring clay court season. He arrived at the French Open with high hopes but a poor record on his least favorite surface. Sampras’ first-round loss was his first opening loss at a Grand Slam event in five years and left him questioning and unsure.
That Sampras took the loss hard was understandable, but the pain of losing was doubled by Sampras’ professed “Win one for Gully” approach. After matches, Sampras had taken to saying, “Tim is doing his part by going through his chemotherapy, I’m doing my part by winning.”
Powerless to help his friend in any medical way, Sampras convinced himself that if he won enough tournaments he might make Gullikson well. By taking responsibility for Gullikson’s health, Sampras put himself in an untenable position where, in his mind, his losses were equated with hurting his coach.
Sampras said he became aware of this self-constructed trap and is now trying to let tennis stand for itself, not as a cancer-fighting agent.
“Tim knows that I’m doing my best and trying to win,” Sampras said. “Over the clay-court season, when I wasn’t doing so hot, he was disappointed and so was I. But I’m not putting pressure on myself for his recovery. I can’t do that.”
The two have been uncommonly close in the tennis world of disposable coaches. Sampras left Joe Brandi in December 1991 and first approached Tom Gullikson to coach him. Gullikson was under contract to the USTA and unavailable, but he recommended his brother.
Tim Gullikson is an exponent of mental toughness. He took the talented but slack Sampras in 1992 and boosted him from a static No. 6 ranking to a solid No. 1 and five Grand Slam titles before he became sick.
“Things were good, things were working,” Sampras said recently. “Tim and I got along well. He is my coach and also my friend.”
The first inkling of illness occurred at a tournament in Stockholm last October. Gullikson returned to his room after dinner and called the tournament’s practice courts. Brad Gilbert, Andre Agassi’s coach, answered the phone and he and Gullikson commenced a bizarre conversation--Gilbert was unable to understand Gullikson’s slurring words and Gullikson heard Gilbert’s voice but had no comprehension of what he was saying.
Upon hanging up the phone, Gullikson fell forward and collapsed into a glass-topped coffee table, smashing his nose and embedding shards of glass in his face.
When his doctors in Wheaton suggested Gullikson might have a faulty heart valve, no one was particularly concerned.
Two months later Gullikson was with Sampras in Munich. Rosemary Gullikson called her husband and there was another unintelligible conversation. Rosemary, a former nurse, hung up and called the hotel’s front desk and arranged for Gullikson to be taken to a hospital.
This time the medical stakes had escalated. Gullikson was told he had suffered two strokes and would need to make some changes in his diet and lifestyle. No major problem. Gullikson agreed and went back to work.
The next month work began afresh with the first Grand Slam tournament of the year, the Australian Open. Gullikson was warming Sampras up for a third-round match on a warm day. Sampras looked sharp, but Gullikson did not.
He left the practice court and took Sampras’ rackets to be restrung. He never made it. Gullikson’s world began to wheel and spin. His brother, Tom, fetched him from the tournament doctor’s office and together they went by car to Epworth Hospital, Melbourne’s best cardiac care facility.
Sampras went out to play Lars Johnson, not knowing much about his coach’s health. He won the match, then rushed to the hospital.
“The first two times he had these episodes, we were concerned,” Sampras said. “After the third episode, we knew it was getting pretty serious.”
Serious, but not as immediately threatening as doctors told Gullikson that day. Gullikson was told he had melanoma of the brain and had perhaps six months to live.
The devastating news--which would later prove to be an inaccurate diagnosis--was kept from Sampras, who had advanced to the quarterfinals.
“I heard someone talk about a tumor, but no one told me,” Sampras said.
Still, Sampras knew something was profoundly wrong with Gullikson, who stayed in the hospital for several days before he was stable enough to fly back to Chicago.
Even while he was playing, Sampras found he could not banish thoughts of Gullikson lying in a hospital bed attached to a web of tubes. Sampras had already lost Gerulaitis, his closest friend in tennis, three months before. He became fixated on the notion that one day someone can be healthy and young and the next dead or dying.
“I wouldn’t want to see anyone I knew really well, who was sick or couldn’t function; it affects you,” he said. Those were the thoughts that intruded as Sampras played Jim Courier in the semifinal. Tim and Tom Gullikson were on their way back to the United States, where Tim would receive treatment. Sampras remained behind, but his thoughts were with his coach.
The match with Courier was a three-hour 58-minute, five-set struggle that ended in the early morning hours. No one who saw it will forget it.
Sampras lost the first two sets, then won the next two. Suddenly, during the changeover after the first game of the fifth set, he slumped in his chair, buried his head in a towel and began to weep, his shoulders shuddering.
With a hushed center court crowd watching, Sampras collected himself and managed to get through Courier’s service game. But as he stood at the baseline to serve in the next game, Sampras began to cry again. Courier called across the net to him, saying if Sampras wasn’t able to play they could play another day.
For whatever reason, Courier’s solicitous words angered Sampras and snapped his attention back to the match. He began by serving two aces and won the game at love. He won the set and the match, but drained emotionally and physically, Sampras lost to Andre Agassi in the final.
Sampras was guided through the end of the Australian Open by Paul Annacone, a personable former pro who had befriended Sampras when he first came on the tour as a teen-ager. Annacone’s mandate is to maintain the status quo.
“Things are going really well,” Sampras said. “He’s trying to make the whole thing as easy as possible for everyone. I’m going to be with him for as long as it takes for Tim to get back on his feet.”
When that might be is a question Sampras doesn’t even ask. For now, he’s intent on being there for his friend, even if that means by furthering the coach’s teachings on a court thousands of miles away. Sampras has come to see that the greatest lesson his coach has taught him is even now being played out.
“Tennis is a great game. I see myself playing for many more years,” Sampras said. “But there’s going to be a time when I’m not playing anymore, maybe 50 years of my life when I don’t play tennis. My health and my family are the most important things I have. I didn’t want to find out this way, but this whole thing has helped me see that.”