1995 : Twins against cancer

Jun 7, 2023, 12:30:00 PM

Tim and Tom Gullikson united against disease

Melbourne, Australian Open Central Court, January 1995. A disconcerted Jim Courier said the most unexpected words ever heard on a professional tennis court. “Are you alright, Pete? We can play tomorrow, you know.” Jim was facing a ghost, a man who lost it all in the Australian Open quarter finals. On the other side of the court, there was the usually cold-blooded machine-like ‘Pistol Pete’ Sampras, who burst into tears before serving in the fifth set; Sampras had made it back despite being down two sets nothing (6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4). No, Pete was not alright. A few days before, his American coach Tim Gullikson had to leave the continent in a rush after he passed out during Sampras’ practice session. It was one too many. The German doctors who had taken care of Gullikson on the European Tour –during which he already suffered from convulsions– had concluded that his attacks were due to a congenital heart malformation after they had found a blood clot in his brain. But it got worse; in Chicago, the doctors found an inoperable brain tumor. Sampras, who went on to lose the final to Andre Agassi, was inconsolable. Not only did he win four Grand Slam tournaments and snatched the ATP World No. 1 spot with Tim Gullikson; his coach was also his best friend and a mentor who knew him better than anyone. A few months later, Tim and his twin brother Tom founded the Tim & Tom Gullikson Foundation to raise funds against cancer.

Tim thought his experience could help him fill a ‘void’ in the regular healthcare system through a team-building-inspired new program to teach patients and families how to mentally cope with the disease. Back then, brain tumors were the second most common form of childhood cancer and the third deadliest among adults. On 3 May 1996, Tim Gullikson died at the age of 44 in Wheaton (Illinois). 900 people attended his funeral a few days later. There were the players he had coached (Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova, Mary Joe Fernández and Aaron Krickstein), his former opponents, as well as his twin brother Tom, the partner with whom he won 15 titles in doubles. In April 2021, in the Control the Controllables podcast, Tom said he had slipped the Wimbledon trophy into his brother’s coffin. As for Pete Sampras, he said: “Tim did not only teach me how to be a Wimbledon champion; he taught me how to be a champion in life.” To this day, the Tim & Tom Gullikson Foundation has raised over €5M for the development of cancer treatment programs.