If it works, it will be remembered as a selfless act by one of history's best players. If it doesn't, it will be recalled as an epic disaster.
Pete Sampras seemed willing to take that chance yesterday when he kept his pledge to play only doubles during this weekend's Davis Cup quarterfinal tie between the United States and Australia. Sampras, who joined the U.S. team late, will sit as Americans Jim Courier and Todd Martin play singles matches against two-time U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter and talented 18-year-old Lleyton Hewitt on the hard courts of Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline, Mass., this afternoon.
Sampras will be paired with Alex O'Brien in Saturday's doubles match; Mark Woodforde and Sandon Stolle will play for the Australians. On Sunday, the best-of-five tie will conclude with reverse singles matches, ending with Courier playing Hewitt. Courier has some experience in the role of closer: In April, he completed a rousing U.S. upset over Britain with a tense Sunday night win over Greg Rusedski.
"I am very sensitive as far as being here this week," said Sampras, who originally declined to play Davis Cup this year, but changed his mind after seeing the emotion Courier and Martin evoked in England. " . . . Jim and Todd deserve to play singles. They have shown, not only this year but the past couple of years, their commitment to Davis Cup. I haven't been in the same boat."
It was hard for the Australians to suppress their glee when U.S. captain Tom Gullikson announced Sampras's doubles slot during the official draw at Longwood yesterday. Sampras had said he would play only doubles since announcing he was joining the U.S. team last month, but both Australian captain John Newcombe and Rafter publicly doubted that Sampras would maintain that position. Speculation of Sampras slipping into a singles slot increased earlier this month, when Sampras won his sixth Wimbledon title and Martin said he would be happy to step aside for the good of the team.
But Sampras surprised everyone, possibly even Gullikson, by maintaining his desire to be a "team player." Newcombe was incredulous -- "I wouldn't like to be in Gully's shoes if we win," he said -- but Gullikson said the decision was a "consensus" reached by all the players.
"We all feel good about it," he said. "I feel good about it. The players feel good about it. If other people don't feel good about it, that is their problem."
Sampras's decision to play at all is the latest evidence that U.S. players are warming to Davis Cup play, sparked by the April win over Britain. The matches were played on noisy indoor courts in Birmingham, England, and with star players such as Sampras and Andre Agassi declining to play, Courier and Martin were left as clear underdogs to Tim Henman and Rusedski.
When Courier pulled out the final victory, he inspired both his teammates and those who stayed behind. Agassi, watching from his home in Las Vegas, said seeing childhood friend Courier play so well helped him believe he could win a major title again. He went on to claim the French Open and reach the final at Wimbledon, falling to Sampras.
"When you looked at the matchups [at Birmingham], you didn't expect a whole lot," Agassi said recently. "To see their heart and effort translate into a level of tennis that's inspiring -- I don't think you even have to appreciate tennis to identify with someone overcoming odds and situations."
Agassi is still refusing to play Davis Cup because of a personal dispute with the USTA, but he dedicated part of his French Open run to Courier and even sat in the stands to watch one of Courier's Wimbledon matches. Sampras was more direct; he called Gullikson and told him he had "learned a lesson" and wanted to play Davis Cup after all.
"You look at the atmosphere of Davis Cup, and those are the situations I want to be in for the next three or four years," Sampras said. " . . . I'm looking forward to not only playing this year but playing more in the future."
Matchup: United States
When: Today through Sunday.
Where: Brookline, Mass.
Schedule: Today -- United States' Todd Martin vs. Lleyton Hewitt, United States' Jim Courier vs. Patrick Rafter. Saturday -- United States' Pete Sampras and Alex O'Brien vs. Mark Woodforde and Sandon Stolle. Sunday -- Martin vs. Rafter, Courier vs. Hewitt.
TV (all on tape delay): Today -- ESPN, 2 p.m.; ESPN2, 4 p.m.; Saturday -- ESPN, 5 p.m.; Sunday -- 3 p.m.