Boyfriend of the Bride

updated 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THEY WERE OSTENSIBLY ON HAND to watch the National Basketball Association's Miami Heat play the Orlando Magic, but on May 1 tennis ace Pete Sampras and the attractive young woman with him were generating plenty of heat, and maybe a little magic, on their own. "They were cuddly the whole time," says someone who saw the woman caressing Sampras's neck that evening in Orlando. "Pete seemed happier than I've ever seen him."

The source of Sampras's happiness, it seems, is actress Kimberly Williams, star of the 1991 movie Father of the Bride and its 1995 sequel. During the past few weeks, as Sampras, the world's top-ranked male tennis player since 1993, struggled with injuries, Williams has been constantly at his side. She commiserated after he pulled a thigh muscle during a first-round loss to Jim Courier at the Italian Open on May 13. A week later she was with his entourage at a tournament in Düsseldorf, Germany when he hurt his left leg again and had to forfeit an opening-round match to Mark Philippoussis.

"They seem to get along really well," says Sampras's older brother Gus, an account executive at a Los Angeles sports management firm. While noting that the two haven't known each other long, he adds, "I think Pete's looking for someone with a good heart, someone who is close to her family, and Kim has those qualities. That's very much like he is."

Indeed, judging by what friends say, the fresh-faced pair sound close to being emotional mirror images. Both 25, Sampras and Williams are all-American types, warm but a bit shy, who have stayed grounded despite a healthy measure of fame. Says a source close to Williams: "They're both nice people."

Who have in common early success. Sampras first swung a racket as a 7-year-old growing up in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., the youngest of three children of Sam, a Defense Department engineer, and Georgia, a housewife. Meanwhile, the athletic Williams, the oldest of three children, was playing high school soccer in an upscale suburb outside New York City. (Her father, Gurney, is a freelance writer; her mother, Linda, is a fund-raiser for Sarah Lawrence College.) Though Williams began doing commercials at 14, her beau-to-be waited until 16 to join the pro tour. Both hit the big time at 19: Williams, then a Northwestern University theater major, beat out hundreds of actresses to star in Steve Martin's Father of the Bride remake. And in 1990, Sampras became the youngest man to win the U.S. Open.

He also won the heart of DeLaina Mulcahy, six years his senior. Introduced by a mutual friend, the two embarked on a seven-year romance. Last fall, though, Mulcahy moved out of their 5,500-square-foot home adjoining a Tampa golf course. Friends say the 31-year-old attorney wanted to make the relationship legal. Sampras, it seems, didn't, and she returned to her hometown of Houston.

The Sampras-Williams pairing was set in motion early this year, when a pal of Williams's began raving to pro-tennis tour publicist Kevin O'Keefe about her, and happened to mention she was unattached. (Those she had casually dated include soccer player Jorge Salcedo.) O'Keefe immediately thought of his own newly available friend. After checking with Williams (then starring in ABC's Relativity, canceled last week) to gauge her interest, O'Keefe suggested that Sampras call.

He did. The two finally met in April after Sampras, stricken with tendinitis, pulled out of two Asian tournaments. He took advantage of the break to rendezvous with Williams, who shares a one-bedroom Santa Monica apartment with her cockatiel Louise. On their first date they went hiking. However, "We just prefer to keep the details to ourselves," says Williams. Still, they found themselves sufficiently in step to meet several more times in short order, including catching a U2 concert in Las Vegas.

Right now, those close to the couple are loath to speculate on where the match is leading. But pro Tom Gullikson, brother of Pete's late coach Tim, believes the relationship can only help Sampras's game. "The happier you are off the court," he says, "it leads to good things happening on it."

PAM LAMBERT
DON SIDER in Florida, BRYAN ALEXANDER in Düsseldorf, MICHELE KELLER in Los Angeles and MARY GREEN in New York City

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