Artistry for Pete's sake

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It was the kind of noise Homer Simpson makes when he runs into a regular disappointment in his life, somewhere between a "doh" and a "dah". This wasn't a Simpson but a Sampras reacting to missing a simple volley at the net, denying himself the chance to go 40-0 up after he had just broken Todd Woodbridge in the third set of Friday's men's singles semi-final at Wimbledon. Sampras was already two sets to the good.

So this was practically the only moment in the entire match when he emerged from his inner cocoon to express his feelings, albeit monosyllabically. The rest of the time Sampras was as enclosed as anyone could possibly be in such a public place as the Centre Court.

Woodbridge noted the incident in the detached language of tennis - "it was his first unforced error, so maybe that's why he came down a little". The Australian's memory was made clearer by the fact that he went on to break Sampras's serve in that game, the American's first loss on serve since 97 games earlier against Mikael Tillstrom on the first day of the Championships.

While Woodbridge duly exploited the error, it was Sampras' acknowledgement of it which suddenly made him seem vulnerable, rather like King Lear breaking the sacred spell in a theatre by telling the audience that he has fluffed a line.

Only once previously at this year's Wimbledon had Sampras publicly reacted to fallibility, and that too turned into a temporary loss. It was against Petr Korda in the fourth round when, two sets up and leading 5-1 in the third-set tie-break, Sampras gifted the Czech a point. He promptly swished his racket around his feet, his face crumbling in self-recrimination. The stone-hard concentration had cracked and he went on to lose the tie- break and prolong the match by a further two sets.

Cedric Pioline, who has never beaten Sampras in seven meetings, will cling to the hope of provoking such moments in his apparently uphill struggle against Sampras today, otherwise he faces a man who can psyche himself into a state of otherness which permits no sense of vulnerability.

This epic concentration will be just one of the weapons Sampras brings into his fourth Wimbledon final this afternoon but it is perhaps the most crucial of all, for if it fails his game can be separated off into its mere technical excellence. This is plainly formidable in its own right, but was not always so, even at Wimbledon.

He lost here in the first round in 1989, ironically to Woodbridge, when they were both still teenagers, and Sampras himself admits that his Wimbledon form did not register until 1992, when he reached a semi-final before losing to Goran Ivanisevic.

"That was the first year I actually played well here. For the first couple of years I served and volleyed well but I couldn't return, and that was one thing Tim [Gullikson] really helped me with, my grass court game. Now for the past four years I'm very confident on grass and I've grown to love it like I do hard courts. So it's very simple out there - you've just got to hold serve and stay patient, and not play any careless tennis."

It is widely accepted that Gullikson's death last May undermined Sampras's willpower for Wimbledon last year, when he crashed out of the quarter- finals in straight sets to Richard Krajicek. Since then, his new coach, Paul Annacone, has helped restore the concentration and the iron will to win exemplified by Sampras' victories at last year's US Open and this year's Australian, to bring his total of Grand Slam wins to nine.

"This is what it is all about for me, the major tournaments," Sampras said on Friday evening. "Now I have a chance to get another Grand Slam and I'm very motivated and ready to play."

The mask of concentration had been laid aside by now to reveal an articulate and humorous individual quite different to the expressionless on-court Terminator who has scythed his way to the final. Asked if he was a better player now than when he won his hat-trick of Wimbledon titles between 1993 and 1995, Sampras smiled broadly.

"Yes, I've improved a little bit, but I think I was pretty good back then too. It's not that complicated, guys."

For Pioline, however, it will seem that way. The basic business of dealing with Sampras's near-immaculate serve will be the Frenchman's continual problem as its weight must make the receiver feel like he is trying to return a cricket ball.

Sampras has respect for Pioline - "he's a great athlete" - but Annacone let slip his player's ominous intentions in an aside on Friday: "Pete wants to win this, and win it well." Just don't expect him to smile till it's all over.