That video of Pete Sampras on the Charlie Rose show is not available yet, so let’s look back in the time capsule to December 19, 1996. The number 1 ranked player is Pete Sampras. He is 25 and has eight majors. You can tell it’s the 1990s because he’s wearing a flannel shirt.
His coach and best friend, Tim Gullickson, passed away on May 3. There’s something about seeing Pete Sampras cry or almost cry that makes me cry buckets. You can tell by the set of his jaw and the look in his eyes that he’s trying to keep it all inside, even before he says his first words in this interview. Tim’s twin brother Tom Gullickson joins him for the interview. Tom was the Davis Cup Captain at the time. The US won the Davis Cup in 1995 behind Pete’s spectacular defeat of the Russians, in Moscow, on clay, where he won both singles matches and the doubles (with Todd Martin). The Russians haven’t lost in Moscow since.
Tom and Pete are on the show to discuss the recently formed Tim and Tom Gullickson Foundation, which is a non-profit that helps families cope with brain cancer. With all the focus on curing these dreadful diseases, the everyday battles of patients and caregivers can get lost. The Gullicksons set out to change that. Tom and Pete were in New York to play in the Foundation’s first benefit, along with Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and Jim Courier.
Beyond that sad event, it’s fun to hear their assessment of Pete’s career so far and how the rest of the field stacked up. Tom and Pete said Agassi could continue be the biggest threat to take the number 1 ranking…if interested and motivated. That proved to be correct.
Pete correctly diagnosed Andre as having a letdown after the 1995 US Open final. As Pete notes, their rivalry was huge in 1995 with commercials and a major media blitz. Everyone hoped it would just continue into 96 and beyond, but it fizzled when Andre went on another one of his walkabouts, to use the Aussie term. This is pretty evident in the brief clip of Agassi at Gullickson’s funeral, with his chubby cheeks and close-cropped head. If you're trying to figure out when a clip or photo of Agassi was taken, his appearance is always a dead giveaway.
As the 96 Olympics coach, Tom noticed that Agassi was highly motivated to win the gold medal and did, then rode the crest of his Olympic win the following week in Cincinnati against a much tougher field. But Andre was just starting his longest slide down the rankings yet. Look for this same dynamic at this summer’s Olympics in Beijing. Tennis’s experience in the modern Olympics has been mixed, with unconventional winners every time. The first person to correctly post the name of the 2004 men’s gold medalist in the comments wins a CounterPuncher t-shirt.
Tom Gullickson will be appearing at the Tennis Masters Series in Cincinnati on July 25.
Pete and Andre did have a few more moments left in their rivalry. And tennis finally got its great men's rivalry from players, styles and countries that were not foreseen back in 1996.