The preeminent tennis player of his generation, Pete Sampras, holder of seven Grand Slam titles, including three consecutive Wimbledon championships, is known as a winner. He is, of course, no stranger to defeat, since champions must lose before they learn how to win. But no loss hurt the top seed in this year’s Lawn Tennis Championships, which began last week, as much as the death from cancer in May of his coach Tim Gullikson. “You try to prepare yourself,” says Sampras, “but when death happens it leaves a sad, empty feeling.”
The two weren’t natural soulmates. Sampras, 24, a shy brooder with a surplus of talent, is the second youngest of four children of a former Defense Department engineer, Soterios, 59, and his homemaker wife, Georgia, 55. He grew up in Palos Verdes, Calif., and entered tennis’s top rank at age 19, in 1990, when he defeated fourth-seeded Andre Agassi at the U.S. Open to become the youngest men’s champion in the event’s then 110-year history. Gullikson, the son of an Onalaska. Wis., barber and a homemaker, was a gregarious man who worked hard to make the most of his solid but unspectacular ability. During his 12-year career he won four pro-tour singles titles and 16 doubles championships (10 of those playing alongside his identical twin, Tom) before becoming coach to such players as Martina Navratilova and Aaron Krickstein. Then, starting in 1991, Gullikson and Sampras built a coaching relationship that Sampras calls perfect, and in the process they forged one of those friendships life bestows but rarely.
In early 1995, after a series of fainting spells, Gullikson was diagnosed with oligodendroglioma, a rare form of brain cancer (some 600 cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, the National Cancer Institute estimates). Despite chemotherapy, he died on May 3 in Wheaton, the Chicago suburb where he lived with his wife, Rosemary, 43, a lawyer, and children Erik, 13, and Megan, 9. He was 44 years old.
Devastated by Gullikson’s illness and death—his funeral on May 7 was the first Sampras had ever attended—the tennis star became determined to help find a cure. “I lost a friend to cancer,” he says, “and whatever I can do to prevent that from happening again, I want to do. “He has become involved in the Tim and Tom Gullikson Foundation, which raises money for cancer research and treatment, and in May joined the American Cancer Society’s Public Awareness Council, which helps educate the public about cancer. (For information, call 1-800-ACS-2345.)
At a tennis club near his home in Tampa, where he lives with girlfriend DeLaina Mulcahy, 30, a law school graduate, Sampras, sometimes weeping and often lapsing into the present tense when speaking of his coach, took time out on the eve of Wimbledon to talk with correspondent Meg Grant.
At the end of ’91, I was looking for a coach. I was ranked fourth in the world and felt I needed someone who could get me to No. 1. When I started on the tour, I’d run into Tim and Tom at tournaments but couldn’t distinguish one from the other—I called them both Gully. They had great reputations as coaches, and I thought one of them could help me.
I first approached Tom—not for any particular reason—but he had a commitment, and I was looking for someone who was able to travel 26 weeks of the year. Tom said he was sure Tim would like to talk to me. So Tim came down to Bradenton [Fla.], where I was living, to discuss what I could do to be a better player. He told me he was kind of a blue-collar player, worked hard, didn’t have a lot of talent. That was something I lacked at the time—I didn’t have a great attitude. I had some talent, but I was a bit…flaky might be the word.
Our first full year together was 1992. Within a few months we were comfortable around each other. One thing that stood out was that Tim had a great attitude. He was very outgoing. He had a million stories, a lot of friends. He loves hanging around in the locker room talking to the guys. He instilled that in me over the years. I was always a shy kid—I still am—but he brought a little personality out of me off the court. It was much more than a player-coach relationship. He was my best buddy. We planned on working together for many years.
In October 1994, I was playing in Stockholm. Tim and I were in my hotel room joking and laughing. Then Tim went downstairs to check the schedule, but he didn’t come back. I called his room, but there was no answer. At 11 p.m., Bob Brett, one of the coaches, knocked on my door. He said there’d been an accident. Apparently, Tim had gone to his room and fainted. He hit his head on a glass coffee table, breaking his nose. Luckily, he’d left his door open. If he hadn’t, maybe he’d have bled to death. When another coach walked by, he saw Tim lying on the floor. I just figured he fainted because he was dehydrated. Tim always wanted to lose weight, and I remember he was on this diet and not eating well. He was in the hospital three or four days. They had to do surgery on his nose.
At the beginning of December, I had the Grand Slam Cup in Munich. Tim and I were in the hotel lounge one night, and I’ll never forget him saying to me, “Is this room spinning?” I said, “No.” He said he felt dizzy and was going to sleep. The next morning he looked like he wasn’t there. He said, “I think I need to go home.” He admitted he’d been throwing up in the night. I said, “I think you should get checked out before you hop a plane,” so he went to the hospital and they did a bunch of tests. They said he had a minor heart condition. Rosemary flew over, and Tim stayed in the hospital throughout the tournament.
Tim looked fine after a few days, but he went back to Chicago to have more tests. They decided he’d had a stroke and had heart problems [it was a false diagnosis]. But his doctor said he was okay to go to the Australian Open with me in January. Then, right before my third-round match, he had another episode where he felt faint. He went to the doctor’s room, I got Tom, and they took him to the hospital.
I ended up winning in Australia, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Tim during the match. Right after, I went to see him. He had a lot of tests done. To this day I don’t know if Tim knew he had some tumors then, but I could see that he was very worried. He and Tom were crying. I got scared, but I wanted to be strong for them so I didn’t cry. After four days in the hospital, Tim returned to Chicago. By then I had heard, something about a tumor from someone. I don’t recall who. It’s a blur.
The morning he left, I had my quarterfinals match with Jim Courier. I lost the first two sets, 7-6, 7-6, but I hung in and won the next two. In the fifth set I just cracked. Inside I was really hurting. There’s a lot of emotion in a match anyway, but I had this mental picture of Tim crying in his hospital bed. I broke down, and for a couple games I just couldn’t control my emotions, something I’ve always been able to do on the court. I was trying not to cry, but in some ways it felt good. I was just letting it all out. Jim said, “Pete, are you okay? We can do this tomorrow.” I didn’t know if he was giving me a hard time or not, but it kind of angered me. I snapped out of it, and went on to win the Open.
I called Tim after the match. He’d seen it on TV, and he said, “Pete, you gotta win in straight sets because I don’t want to see you cry anymore.” It was great to hear his voice. He said he was feeling fine and that he was going to have tests done to find out what was going on. Two or three weeks later a brain biopsy confirmed that he had four cancerous tumors. Tim told me about the diagnosis and that he would be having chemotherapy treatments. After I spoke to him I called Tom. He told me the tumors were slow-growing, that the treatments would hopefully keep the tumors small and maybe even get rid of them. He added that there are people who have brain cancer and have been around for 10 to 15 years. That was nice to hear.
The next couple of weeks were hard, though. Tim was scared,, and I could hear it in his voice. He cried a lot on the phone. Still, his attitude was very positive. He never complained, never asked, “Why me?” He started chemo in February 1995, and he handled it better than anyone his doctors had ever seen. He didn’t even get sick.
We always had the feeling that Tim was going to beat the cancer. I was hoping that maybe there was a chance he could start traveling with me again. Meantime, [former tennis pro] Paul Annacone had begun working with me. But Tim stayed involved, watching me play on TV and phoning me and Paul about things I needed to work on. All through those months Tim and I didn’t talk about the cancer. I felt the best thing I could do for him was just have him very much a part of my team and go out and win—when I won, he felt better.
For about six months after Australia I didn’t see Tim. I was playing a lot, and in some ways I was a little bit scared. But after Wimbledon [in June ’95] I went to Chicago. He was fighting so hard. By September the tumors had shrunk some, and Tim’s doctor gave him the okay to come to Las Vegas [for the U.S.-Sweden Davis Cup semifinals]. Tom was U.S. team captain, so Tim really wanted to be there. Just to be in the locker room was great for his spirits.
I didn’t see Tim again until March of this year. Tom told me that the tumors had started to grow again and recommended that I go see Tim. He didn’t look like the Tim I last saw. He was swollen [from steroid treatments], he had no hair, and he was confined to a wheelchair. He could still talk but was having a hard time getting his thoughts together. I gave him a kiss, and he looked at me and called me Pistol, something he called me a lot. Tim took a nap every day, but when I was there he wanted to stay awake and see me.
The next day I flew to Asia for a tournament. When I got back, I spoke to Tom and Rosemary. They said, “It could be any week. You should probably come.” Tim was struggling a bit more and having a hard time speaking. I think that’s when I finally prepared myself that he was going to pass away. The hardest thing was seeing Megan and Erik. They were strong—stronger in some ways than I was. But I was thinking how sad it would be for them if Tim didn’t make it.
That trip was the last time I saw Tim. Before I left, we took a drive. That was where I said goodbye. I knew it was the last time I’d see him, so I just told him…I told him what I told him. I hope he heard it.
It was my girlfriend DeLaina who told me Tim had passed away. While I was out, Tom had called and told her. I went for a walk and shot some baskets. Later I called Tom. His voice sounded just like Tim’s, and that was hard. In some ways, I felt better that Tim was going to a better place than what he was going through here, but it was still harder than I’d ever expected.
At the funeral, on May 7, I spoke about this connection Tim and I had, how in Las Vegas we were in the team room with a lot of people, and we’d listen to a conversation and be thinking the same thing and look at each other and just smile. I told everyone, “Those smiles I’ll always miss.”
I was supposed to play in Rome a week later, but I wasn’t ready. I really didn’t care about tennis. I wanted to have time to mourn. Accepting the finality—the fact that you’re not going to be able to speak to him or see him again—was what made me feel that way.
Tim was 44, didn’t abuse his body, was a good person—and he was taken away from us. It made me do some soul-searching. Tennis is a great game, but ultimately it’s going to end and it’s not the most important thing in life. It kind of put everything into perspective. My father really helped me. He lost two sisters and his mother to breast cancer. He said, “Pete, you have had a very protected life. But this is life. You have to deal with it in your own way and accept it.”
I’m trying to think about all the good times that Tim and I had: the jokes, the funny stories. And I talk to Tom, who’s doing pretty good. We will continue to be close for the rest of my life. And, thank God, there are two of them.
When I played at the French Open in May, I could still hear the things Tim told me about fighting hard, believing I could win. I wanted so much to win the French for him because that was the one I hadn’t won. I now believe I can win there. After Wimbledon, I’ll be competing at the Olympics. Tom’s the captain of that team, so it’ll be fun. Maybe I’ll win a gold medal. Then I’m going to help out with Tim’s foundation and the American Cancer Society. There are some cancers, like Tim’s, that are just not curable yet, and we’ve got to find a cure. I don’t think I’ll ever get over Tim’s death, but I’m trying to get through each day. And I’m okay now. I’m okay.