Finalists' bravery brings breath of life

John Roberts looks back on a tournament which finally shone after some uncertain moments
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The Independent Online
Apart from that, Mrs Tarango, how did you enjoy the play? Three defaults and a handbagging is not an average Wimbledon. Pomp and circumstance is the customary ticket.

So much seemed to happen in triplicate, starting with the sequence of disqualifications. Tim Henman, of Oxford, you will recall, became the first player to be shown the door in the history of the championships. His uncharacteristic petulance resulted in a ball-girl accidentally being hit in the head after he struck a ball in anger. This was followed by the Jeff Tarango fiasco and Murphy Jensen's disappearance (comparatively few people having even been aware of his existence).

We were then able to take stock of the tennis and watch Pete Sampras's advance to a third consecutive men's singles title, climaxing a third year of sunny conditions. Don't knock a fair-weather friend.

A fellow from Canada named Greg Rusedski traced his Yorkshire roots. He might appear baffled if asked about the county's famous puddings, but Our Greg impressed the nation by making a souffle of three Frenchmen. He then met Sampras, Greek by descent, big-time American winner by nature. Losing to one of the great champions, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5, is no disgrace, particularly for a player aged 21 with a 137mph serve to build around.

Andre Agassi, in his swaddling clothes, kept the show on the road in a fashion. The top personality succumbed in the semi-finals to Boris Becker's overwhelming desire to mark the 10th anniversary of his initial triumph by reminding everybody that he still means business.

Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach, has done a terrific job in raising the Las Vegan's expectations of himself and instilling the discipline and commitment that may have been lacking at times. His rise from No 31 to No 1 in the world, annexing the United States and Australian Open titles, has been a tonic for a sport under pressure. The challenge facing Gilbert now is to ensure that the disappointment of one major loss does not undermine Agassi's confidence. The dreams and schemes of mice and men, etc.

The tournament was greatly indebted to Becker, who breathed new life into a flagging event midway through the second week with a dramatic quarter- final victory against the Frenchman Cedric Pioline, 9-7 in the fifth set. This guaranteed that for the first time since seedings began, 86 years ago, the top four men and women would advance to the semi-finals.

It was a pity that Boom Boom was gradually reduced to Phut Phut by Sampras's superiority in the final. Becker will be remembered on this occasion for responding enthusiastically to the crowd's request for a lap of honour. There was also a nice touch before the finalists made their entrance. Becker appeared in the stairwell and took a peek at the Centre Court like a child at his favourite shop window.

Watching the now familiar scene of Sampras raising the trophy above his head for the spectators and photographers, your correspondent was reminded of his first interview with the champion. It took place in one of the recesses at Queen's Club, London, in 1989. Sampras was then a callow competitor, in his second year as a professional.

The talent was obvious. With that potent, no-nonsense serve - the cocking of the left foot, the swift lean forward to take aim, the flowing arc of movement - complemented by excellent volleys, he was a natural for grass courts.

A few days earlier, on the slow clay courts at the French Open, Michael Chang, aged 17 and three months, had become the youngest winner of a Grand Slam men's singles title. Sampras, six months older than his compatriot, appeared to be a Wimbledon champion in the making.

"You'll find Pete to be a very nice young man," said Barbara Travers, an expert in media liaison. "He may not be quite as mature as Michael is right now, but he has a great future." Right on all counts.

Having emulated Fred Perry's hat-trick of the 1930s, Sampras has the capability to equal Bjorn Borg's five in a row, or even better it. Easier said, of course, but given good health and consistent form, Sampras will continue to be the player to beat at Wimbledon.

The same could be said of Steffi Graf, although a chronic back condition continues to cast doubt on her prospects of longevity and the number of opportunities she will have to add to her six singles titles.

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario would settle for one, and still finds it hard to believe that she did not win it on Saturday. The Spaniard was the runner- up in the game of games (32 points over 20 minutes) and the match of matches. We shall avoid the word loser, it is far too cold and dismissive of her contribution to an unforgettable afternoon. Like Becker, she made a joke of switching trophies with the champion. Like Becker, she deserved a lap of honour. On the day, however, nobody thought to break with etiquette, and pride probably would have held her back. Best wait for the Venus Rosewater Dish.

There was a good deal of hot air, much of it concerning the slightly depressurised ball, which only betrays a trace of slowing down in cold, cloudy conditions. Experimentation will continue to establish whether a new specification would make an appreciable difference to the pace of the game.

Martina Navratilova's solution - "go back to wooden rackets" - seems too simple for the industry to want to grasp, and so we are left with Pete and Goran swinging their arms, shrugging their shoulders and saying, "Grass-court tennis, what do you expect?" As far as the All England Club is concerned, the grass stays.

The evidence of the past three years suggests there might be one way of providing more excitement on the concluding Sunday - switch the women's final with the men's. But play the early women's rounds at Roehampton.

Only joking.

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