Remembering Tim Gullikson... 20 Years On (Part II)

Today, on the 20th anniversary of his passing, family members and leading figures in the tennis world pay tribute to Tim Gullikson

Return To Part I: Remembering Tim... 20 Years On

Pete Sampras wanted Tom Gullikson, the US Davis Cup captain, as his next coach. But Tom wasn’t available.

“Sampras had been to several USTA training camps, while working with Joe Brandi,” says Tom. “After that partnership ended, his ProServ agent, Ivan Blumberg, got in touch. I'd just signed a new contract with the USTA, for 30 weeks a year, a few weeks earlier, so I couldn't leave them stranded. So I said, ‘I've got someone in mind. He looks exactly like me, talks like me and I know he is available.’ I rang up Tim, explaining Pete was looking for a coach. Pete was in Bradenton at the time, so they met up, sitting down over a three-hour lunch. Tim was very impressed. Pete was a driven young man."

"I can give Tim a call for a trial,” Sampras remembers. “It was a leap of faith. We committed to a year, around 22-26 weeks of travel after the 1991 US Open. Personality-wise Tim was outgoing and the centre of a party.” Tom recalls, “Pete, then, was introspective and didn't talk a lot. The whole world loved Tim. He was a great technical and tactical coach, who kept things simple. Pete and Tim connected on a level way beyond a player and coach.”

“It was nice to just hang out, play cards or golf,” says Sampras. “We gelled and never had any issues on and off the court. We were always around each other and we both didn't internalise our feelings.

The goal was Wimbledon. Sampras, ranked No. 4, had won one match in three visits.

Tim got to work.

“He did wonders for my game, as for my attitude. I sometimes got down on myself and a little bit negative,” says Sampras. He said, ‘You have so much talent, let’s be positive.’ He taught me to believe in myself and not get negative. He didn't want to hear excuses. He knew exactly what to say and what not to say. I didn't like a lot of information. I knew how to play, it was just a case of keeping it simple. I'd like a few key points before going out onto the court.”

Tom remembers, “Pete occasionally wasn't always happy with his ball striking, so Tim said, ‘Why don't you take off your Palos Verdes white collar and put on your blue collar, and learn to fight in order to beat your opponent. You can't play perfectly every day.

"‘Losers make adjustments, great champions change their games.’

“Pete really struggled with his backhand return. Tim had a great backhand return, because he'd played me every day and as a lefty I served to his backhand. He taught Pete how to block, chip and positioning to return serve. He started to beat left handers like a drum.”

Sampras won 54 of his next 55 matches at The Championships, including seven titles in eight years.

Read SL Price's Sports Illustrated Gullikson Feature (May 1995)

Tim's health faltered on Friday, 20 January 1995.

Tim had collapsed in a Stockholm hotel room a few months earlier, and was found bleeding, with a broken nose, near a glass coffee table. He’d recently started a strict diet. Maybe he was weak? Maybe he had jet lag or was tired? Doctors back in Wheaton, Illinois, thought he may have a faulty heart. Tim re-joined Sampras in December, at the Grand Slam Cup in Munich. One evening, Rosemary called Tim, who slurred his words. She alerted the front desk, flew over, and Tim spent the next week in hospital, believed to have suffered two minor strokes.

Tim travelled to Melbourne, for the Australian Open. He’d returned Sampras’ newly-strung racquets, following a practice session ahead of a third-round match against No. 15 seed Magnus Larsson. Then fainted, again. Tom found his twin brother in the tournament doctor’s office. At Epworth Hospital, in Melbourne, a doctor diagnosed melanoma of the brain. “I went to see Tim immediately after the match, a tough five-setter,” says Sampras. “I could see that Tim was worried. I remember seeing Tim and Tom crying at the hospital.”

Tim and Tom needed to return home.

Jim Courier recalls visiting the hospital with his coach, Brad Stine, when Tim was admitted. “We were also part of a group dinner, the night prior to my match with Pete,” admits Courier, who met Sampras in the quarter-final night-match. “Tim, Tom, Pete, Paul Annacone and Nike reps were there. We were all close with Tim and Tom, and very concerned for his well-being. It was a quiet dinner, but we all wanted to be there to support the twins.” Sampras had lost one of his closest friends in tennis, Vitas Gerulaitis, four months earlier.

“Jim and I were pretty good friends, but we needed to rise above that for the 1995 match,” says Sampras. Having fought back from a two-sets-to-love deficit, and with the Gulliksons on a 20-hour flight home, Sampras “couldn’t control my emotions. I lost the first couple of sets and spent the next 90 minutes getting back to even in order to exhale. I was fighting my a** off. It became a personal mission to finish off the match.”

At the start of the fifth set, a fan cried out, ‘Win it for your coach.’ In the third game, Sampras finally broke down. Courier remarked, ‘Are you all right, Pete? We can do this tomorrow.’

“It was plain to see that Pete was releasing the emotions he had been struggling to contain for a few days.”

With both players cramping, Sampras managed to serve out to love. It was 1:09 a.m. “I can't recall how the cramps came on for me exactly," says Courier. "But I do know that Pete was also suffering from cramps as after the match we were a few feet away from each other in the training room being treated at the same time. One of my friends came to visit me, and couldn’t believe that we were talking to each other after such a tough match.”

Upon their return to Chicago, Tim spent four days in hospital and underwent a brain biopsy that revealed four tumours. He began chemotherapy in February 1995.

“We always had the feeling that Tim was going to beat the cancer,” says Sampras. “But it became more serious and Paul [Annacone] had to step in. Tim kept in contact by phone, and they contacted each other on a daily basis.”

“It was tricky, but the combination of Tim's guidance and my friendship with Pete, made the best of a very trying time,” remembers Annacone. “I just remember being a bit nervous early on wondering if I was on the right track and if I was having an impact on Pete. Tim was very thoughtful and clear and made me feel very confident that we were on track. His advice was, ‘Just be patient, give Pete clear and simple information - and to make sure that his game plans were clear in his mind.’”

Says Rosemary, “Tim was a mentor, coach and great friend. He was also a great listener. He talked to Pete and Paul every day. Pete was his son, he loved him and wanted him to do well. I remember Pete once went to a show and tell at Megan's school, shot baskets. The kids were thrilled.”

On 3 May 1996, Tim Gullikson passed away. He was 44.

A few days earlier, Tom had called Corina Morariu, who had known Tim for seven years, and her father, Dr. Albin Morariu, who had become Tim’s personal neurologist. It wouldn’t be long. They flew up to Chicago immediately.

“He was incredibly positive, and his smile could light up the room,” says Morariu, who was 18 at the time. “I remember feeding him yoghurt, while watching Mary Joe Fernandez take on Austria’s Barbara Paulus in the Fed Cup. People were in and out of the house – neighbours, companions. There was such love.

“The family was a big part of my life. My lessons with Tim were part therapy and part coaching. He was a shoulder to lean on and an emotional support. I can never remember the tennis, what we worked on or did.”

Justin Gimelstob, who as a youngster took lessons with Tim the hour before or after Morariu, says, “I can still remember being at Patch Reef Park in Boca Raton as a 12 year old - that's 27 years ago. I can feel him right now taking my hand on a forehand volley to show me how to hit it. I can feel his presence, look at his towering figure. He was like a god. The whole process of coaching was all-consuming for him. He coached, but he made if fun, he was adaptable and committed.”

Morariu says, “I just remember the personal interactions, such as going up to his home in Wheaton and baking cookies with Megan in the kitchen. Tim talked to everyone. He was a social butterfly and everyone gravitated to him.

“When I was diagnosed with leukemia on 17 May 2001, I recalled Tim’s strength, his warmth, patience and spirit. I thought of his attitude. He was always laughing and smiling.”

At Tim’s funeral, attended by 900 people, a few days later, Sampras hadn’t been scheduled to speak. “But he tapped me on the shoulder during the service and indicated he’d like to,” remembers Tom. “He gave a great impromptu, impactful speech.” It was a day of tears and laughter.

Sampras says, “We would have been friends the rest of our lives. His death stopped me in my tracks. It was painful to watch a good man, father, husband die so young.

“Placing the 1993 Wimbledon trophy in his casket was my way of saying thank you. He had given me the tools, the mental encouragement and helped me feel better about myself.

“His death robbed us all.”