Brilliant Becker puts Agassi in his place

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The Independent Online
Phew! We may not see a contrast of styles in the men's singles final tomorrow, but an emotional conclusion to the Wimbledon championships is guaranteed. Either Pete Sampras will become the first player to accomplish a hat-trick of titles since Bjorn Borg, or Boris Becker will reinvent himself as the master of the Centre Court.

Becker has already surpassed expectations - other people's - by defeating Andre Agassi, the world No 1, to advance to his first Grand Slam final since losing to his compatriot Michael Stich here in 1991.

A decade to the day since his emergence as Boom Boom the 17-year-old wunderkind, the youngest and only unseeded champion, Becker brought gasps of amazement and admiration, recovering from a set and 4-1 down to overcome the world's greatest returner of serve, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6, after two hours and 54 minutes.

Having already survived the tournament's great nail-biter, 9-7 in a fifth set against the Frenchman Cedric Pioline in the quarter-finals, Becker joined Agassi in taking the specators on another wonderful excursion.

The third-seed Becker had lost eight consecutive matches to Agassi since hammering the American at the Masters in New York six years ago. On the last two occasions, Agassi had taken delight in snubbing his nose at Nick Bollettieri, his former coach, who joined Becker after ending his long associaton with the Las Vegan after Wimbledon in 1993. Nobody enjoyed Becker's victory more - his wife, Barbara, covered her eyes, afraid to watch the important points.

Who could blame her? After being outclassed by Agassi, the three-times champion hit back as his opponent served for a 5-1 lead in the second set. When Becker forced a tie-break, he caught the American cold, facing his first shoot-out of the tournament, and drilled him, 7-1.

One missed smash in the seventh game started Agassi's slide in the third set, but both players had ample opportunities to break as the fourth set developed into a classic. At one stage it seemed that Becker might double- fault himself out of the lead, but he contrived to salvage himself, occasionally diving like the Becker of old.

As the exchange of shots became more spectacular - and often desperate - Agassi began to feel that even the line calls were conspiring against him. When the umpire, Mike Morrissey, called "fault correction" on one point, he asked the British official if he would like to borrow a racket and join in the play.

Eventually, the second tie-break came, and it was a replica of the first, Becker shooting through for the loss of only a single point, delivering his 22nd ace on the way.

Sampras won his 20th consecutive match at the All England Club, defeating Goran Ivanisevic, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. It was a much shorter contest than the score indicates.

An impressionist might imagine Sylvester Stallone playing Hamlet thus: "To be. . . or what?" Ivanisevic treats tennis in a similar fashion. Once again yesterday, the Croat cut 72 points to the bone, 38 of them aces. Once again, he lost one of the biggest matches of his career. Alas, poor Goran, we know him well.

The match was completed in only two hours and 34 minutes. Thankfully, the first set alone provided as much entertainment as last year's final, and on this occasion Ivanisevic did not lose heart. He simply lost concentration, or was outplayed when it really counted.

In the first game, Ivanisevic netted a backhand when he had a chance to break, setting a pattern of opportunities gained and lost on both sides of the net. An ace saved Ivanisevic in the second game, the luck of a net cord rescued Sampras in the seventh.

The American, to be fair, ought to have been serving for the set at 5- 3 after his opponent missed a volley under pressure. But Sampras, with Ivanisevic taken almost out of the picture, directed a running forehand wide with the whole court before him.

So we went to the familiar territory of a tie-break. Ivanisevic lost his way by double-faulting on the sixth point, but Sampras still required four set points to win the shoot-out, 9-7, to conclude the set after 49 minutes.

We were then treated to some vintage serving by Ivanisevic. Sampras was unable to get so much as a point from his five return games during the second set, and was broken in the concluding game.

One set all after 72 minutes, and Ivanisevic had already unloaded 20 of his bombs. Unfortunately, he was inclined to follow them through the bay, a couple of double faults and a netted approach cost him his serve at start of the third set.

As the set progressed, there was much murmuring in Ivaniservic's native tongue, along with a suggestion to the umpire and a linesman to remove their sunglasses, the better to judge. Ivanisevic's own judgement was not above reproach. A double-fault and an overhit backhand volley gave Sampras a set point, and the American devoured it with a backhand pass down the line.

Ivanisevic was not done. He converted the only break point of the fourth set, returning a second serve well enough for Sampras to edge a forehand volley beyond the baseline in the seventh game.

The match slipped away in the second game of the final set. Sampras created the opportunity to break with a forehand volley off a second serve, then put his racket to a first delivery. The ball rose invitingly for the Croat, but in his anxiety to stay on terms he played what seemed an elementary volley wide.

Having contributed hugely to both the artillery fire and the interludes of grace and subtlety, the American produced aces 20 and 21, and clinched his second match point with a service winner.

Showing that he is not impervious to cosmopolitan cultural influences, Sampras followed the example of his previous opponent, Shuzo Matsuoka, and bowed elaborately to the spectators before leaving to put on his Sunday best for Becker.

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