NEW YORK — When Pete Sampras dubbed Jan-Michael Gambill the future of American men's tennis after a tough quarterfinal match at Wimbledon, it was a compliment that could be taken different ways.
For the 23-year-old Gambill, it could have been an honor or a burden. From Sampras' point of view, it could be read as a comment that the future may or may not be bright.
As the U.S. Open begins Monday, Gambill hopes he will show that he is ready to live up to the most optimistic interpretation of Sampras' remark and build on the confidence he gained at Wimbledon — his best Grand Slam effort so far.
"This is the biggest tournament for me, and I'm looking forward to having a great U.S. Open," Gambill said. "I'm steadily improving every tournament, and I'm ready to win some big matches."
Gambill leads a talented, if somewhat anonymous, group of young players trying to break through with their first Grand Slam title. Russia's Marat Safin, Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero, Ecuador's Nicolas Lapentti, Switzerland's Roger Federer, and Germany's Tommy Haas and Nicolas Kiefer all are capable of beating players like Sampras and defending champion Andre Agassi on any given day.
Whether any of them can go on a tear and win seven matches over the next two weeks remains to be seen.
If the women's title chase appears to be limited to a rather select few — Venus and Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles — the men's title this year seems much more up for grabs.
Neither Sampras nor Agassi have been dominant on hardcourts this summer, and at 29 and 30, respectively, they may be a bit more pressed to cope with the heat and humidity and day and night matches than their younger rivals.
For Gambill, a native of Spokane, Wash., the issue could come down to how well he maximizes his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses. He reached the final at the ATP Tour event in Los Angeles at the end of July, but had to retire in the third set against Michael Chang after spraining an ankle. He played two weeks later, losing to Kiefer in the quarterfinals at Washington, and fell to Carlos Moya in a tuneup last week.
"My serve pretty much drives my game," Gambill said. "I have to concentrate on doing the fundamentals — serving well, returning well. I'm playing smarter tennis lately, not making the dumb mistakes I used to make. My dad has always been my coach, and we've been working hard to smooth things out."
Although Gambill was part of the American Davis Cup team that got blasted 5-0 on clay in Spain last month, he said the opportunity to work with captain John McEnroe improved his game.
"John helped me a lot on my volleying," Gambill said. "He told me to firm up right before I hit the ball. My volleying has been improving, and it's added a dimension to my game. I'm still not a serve-and-volley player, but I have more confidence now when I come in."
The hardcourts at the National Tennis Center are actually perfectly suited to a player like Gambill. They're quick enough to give him an advantage on his serve, but not so quick that they put a high premium on rushing the net. Agassi won here twice from the baseline, Patrick Rafter won twice by attacking the net, and Sampras won four times by doing everything.
If Gambill is going to join them as a champion, he'll have to emulate Sampras. He'll also have to get past some early trouble. Looming in the second round is Australian Mark Philippoussis, the hardest server in the game.