Beckoned by history

Men's singles final: Rejuvenated German seeks to turn back the tide while Sampras chases a record third successive title
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The Independent Online
FOR two weeks, Wimbledon had been building towards a seemingly inevitable final between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. It would be the ultimate showdown: No 2 v No 1, serve and volleyer v baseliner, classicist v romantic, straight man v funny man. The time and place were right for the match that everyone expected and almost everyone wanted. It was history waiting to happen.

To Boris Becker, however, the battle against history is fought on even terms. And his extraordinary defeat of Agassi in their semi-final on Friday put him among the ranks of very special sportsmen for whom there is no such thing as a tide of events. It's individuals that count, and few stand out as glowingly defiant as the man who today takes on Sampras in the hope of winning his fourth Wimbledon title.

When, 10 years ago, Becker became the youngest ever winner of the men's singles at Wimbledon at 17 years and seven months, it was an epoch-making moment. The year before, John McEnroe had won the title by beating Jimmy Connors with what was widely held to be the most complete display of artistry the game had seen. But that was to be McEnroe's last significant contribution at the Championships, and with Becker's arrival the character of the sport, at least on grass, was redefined.

Just as nobody had seen angled backhand volleys like McEnroe's, so the voluptuous power of Becker, while catering to different tastes, came as something astonishingly new. The teenager, outrageously self-confident, was a phenomenon. But other players could see that this brand of physically intimidating tennis - if the serve didn't blast opponents away then the groundstrokes would - was the way forward.

Helped by advances in racket technology, the era of the power game was established, with Becker, initially, at its forefront. He won Wimbledon again in 1986 and 1989. He was runner-up in 1988, 1990 and 1991. But as bigger, stronger players than even Becker came along, and the boy who had brought it all about grew into a man with other cares, he could no longer match the achievements of his youth.

Becker's last Grand Slam title was in the Australian Open of 1991. And although his Wimbledon record is remarkably consistent - only three times in 12 appearances has he failed to get beyond the quarter-finals - you would have been hard pushed before this one to find anyone willing to wage much money on him ever winning it again, or indeed any other Grand Slam event.

The changing odds on Becker's chances here have provided one of the tournament's more remarkable statistics: he was 15-2 to win the title before Wimbledon began, yet on the morning of his semi-final had gone out to 9-1. The lumbering Becker to beat the quicksilver Agassi? You must be joking. But it happened. How? And can Becker go all the way today?

Becker's coach is Nick Bollettieri, the archetypal tennis guru whose flash Florida style is in complete contrast to the German's rather studied mellowness. So when the two got together in February last year, most people in tennis couldn't believe it. Becker had by then got through numerous coaches, notably Gunther Bosch and Bob Brett. His life was changing. He had got married and become a father. He imparted an air of seen-it-all, done-it-all wisdom. He acknowledged that there were more important things than tennis. Gradual decline looked to be setting in, and it was hard to see how anyone could do much about it.

"I was stunned," Bollettieri said last week when recalling the initial approach from Becker. But he got over his amazement to rekindle his new charge's desire and guide him back to something approaching his best form. In 1993, Becker had slipped out of the world's top 10 for the first time since 1985, but by the end of last year was back up to No 3. In the ATP finals in Frankfurt in November, he beat Sampras in the round-robin phase of the tournament before losing to him in the final. While all the talk at the top of the game was of Sampras and Agassi, Becker was hanging on in there.

Becker has always suffered the odd calamitous defeat in Grand Slams. And his record this year - knocked out in the first round in Australia and the third in the French - hardly encouraged thoughts that he could produce it when it mattered at Wimbledon. As a result, Becker attracted very little interest in the build-up to the tournament.

But that was all part of the plan. "We decided to be low-key about it all," Bollettieri said. "We had this little agreement that all we would concentrate on was winning the most prestigious tournament in the world. Brad Gilbert [Andre Agassi's coach] did all the talking last week and I wanted to be the opposite."

What mattered were the conversations Bollettieri had with Becker. In the day-and-a-half they had to work in after Becker's quarter-final win over Cedric Pioline - thrilling, but so laboured that it only argued all the more forcefully for the triumph of Agassi - Bollettieri made a succession of tactical points to his man. They were so detailed that in the end Bollettieri decided to write them all down, and on Friday morning he handed over to Becker his how-to-beat-Agassi memo.

The thrust of it was that Becker should vary his game. After beating Pioline, Becker had said: "I'm not going to try to beat Agassi from the baseline. There's no point doing that against the best baseliner in the game." But after Becker had been made to look embarrassingly gauche for a set-and-a-half, his poise from the baseline was as crucial to the outcome as anything.

Becker-Sampras ought to conform much more to the traditions of grass- court tennis, as both play a big serve-and-volley game and like to go for their shots. It is likely to be as tight as their head-to-head record, which shows six wins for Sampras, five for Becker. In their only previous meeting here, in the 1993 semi-finals, Sampras won in straight sets.

For Sampras, the chance to become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1978 to win three Wimbledons in a row is enough incentive. He is driven in his desire to succeed, and although he has rarely touched the heights of which he is capable during the last fortnight, there was enough of the old Sampras class in his semi-final defeat of Goran Ivanisevic to suggest he may be about to hit top form.

Paul Annacone, Sampras's coach, points out that one of the difficulties for so versatile a player is deciding which shot to hit when. He has tried to encourage Sampras to break up the pattern, just as Becker did against Agassi. "For example, maybe use the chipped return on occasions, rather than hit it with power, which Pete likes to do." In so even a contest, there is value in being unpredictable. And Sampras's wider range of shots will, I think, give him the edge.

Final reckoning: Verdicts of the vanquished and the vital statistics

Pete Sampras

"Little things were always going to decide our semi- final. Pete had more luck and he did it when he needed to. I mean, he played good points. He's tough. When he is at the net or when I am at the net, there's always pressure. If you don't hit a good volley, he's there. He's very quick, and he's going to pass you. He hits a slow return sometimes, and then the pressure is on you to make the point. If you don't, he's waiting there and he's going to pass you." - Goran Ivanisevic (lost 6-7 6-4 3-6 6-4 3-6)

23 Age 27

Washington DC Birthplace Leimen, Germany

Tampa, Florida Residence Leimen/Monte Carlo

6'1" Height 6'3"

12st 2lb Weight 13st 5lb

$832,900 1995 prize money $584,000

$17,277,762 Career prize money $16,400,037

5 (Wim 93, 94; US 90, 93; Aus 94) Grand slam titles 5 (Wim 85, 86, 89; US 89; Aus 91)

2 World ranking 4

1st bt K Braasch (Ger) 7-6 6-7 6-4 6-1 Route to final bt E Alvarez (Sp) 6- 3 6-3 6-4 1st

2nd bt T Henman (GB) 6-2 6-3 7-6 bt J Apell (Swe) 6-3 3-6 6-1 6-2 2nd

3rd bt J Palmer (Swe) 4-6 6-4 6-1 6-2 bt J Siemerink (Holl) 2-6 6-2 6-2 6-4 3rd

4th bt G Rusedski (GB) 6-4 6-3 7-5 bt D Norman (Bel) 7-6 6-3 6-2 4th

QF bt S Matsuoka (Japan) 6-7 6-3 6-4 6-2 bt C Pioline (Fr) 6-3 6-1 6- 7 6-7 9-7 QF

SF bt G Ivanisevic (Croa) 7-6 4-6 6-3 4-6 6-3 bt A Agassi (US) 2-6 7- 6 6-4 7-6 SF

Won 6 (2 carpet, 2 hard, 1 grass, 1 clay) Head to head Won 5 (5 carpet)

Boris Becker

"If you're not hitting the ball with confidence, that's going to be highlighted against someone who plays as well as Boris. He's experienced. He's not going to miss an easy volley at 30-30 to give you break points. But I feel Pete does everything like Boris but a little better. Pete serves bigger, moves better, is better off the ground. The only thing I think Pete might struggle with is Boris's tendency to close you off. If they both play their best tennis, I would take Pete to win." - Andre Agassi (lost 6-2 6-7 4-6 6-7)

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