Pioline stretches Becker to the limit

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The Independent Online
JOHN ROBERTS

Tennis Correspondent

Boris Becker staggered dramatically towards eventide, climaxing an amazing match with a victory which created history. Never before have the top four seeds - men and women - survived to the semi-finals since sowing began 86 years ago.

It was a desperately close thing. Becker finally rid himself of the Frenchman, Cedric Pioline, after four hours 11 minutes, requiring five match-points for victory, 6-3, 6-1, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.

In fact, shortly after 7pm, Andre Agassi, the world No 1, may have been wondering if he would be facing a sixth unseeded contender en route to Sunday's final - and a lot of excited punters were preparing to celebrate a killing.

Such was the weight of post-match betting on Pioline from mainland Europe that his odds had been slashed from 7-2 to 7-4. For two sets, we wondered why. He looked out of his class as Becker's confidence soared, and said afterwards that he had been hampered by an abdominal strain and considered retiring before the third set. "But it was the Wimbledon quarter-finals, and I had to play on,'' he said.

The complexion of the match changed when Becker was drawn into a tie- break in the third set, and double-faulted on the first point. Pioline, barely recognisable from the player who had struggled earlier, won the shoot-out on his sixth set point, 8-6.

Becker appeared to have survived the crisis when he created his first match-point at 10-9 in the fourth-set tie-break. But he had to play on for a further hour and 10 minutes before packing his rackets - all except the one he tossed to the crowd in relief and elation.

Pioline produced a service winner to save himself, and levelled the match on his eighth set-point. He then broke Becker to take a 2-1 lead in the deciding set and also had a game point for 4-3. Becker hauled himself back, breaking to 4-4, and a tiring Pioline eventually steered a backhand over the baseline with the last shot of a match the Championships needed to raise the level of excitement.

``I thought it was an excellent tennis match,'' Becker said. ``Throughout the whole match, I didn't think I had a really bad period, and it was more a question of Pioline of raising his game to a very, very high level for the last three sets. For the past 10 years I have had just one match like that. Last year it was in the round before when I was down 4-2 in the fifth set [to Andrei Medvedev]. The year before it was the quarter- final [Michael Stich]. That's what the game is all about, and what the Championship is all about. The crowd gave both players a standing ovation and it was a very beautiful moment at Wimbledon for me this year.'' he said.

He did not consider that his exertions would affect him adversely. "I have played myself into shape in this tournament. I thought I could play another half an hour or 45 minutes.''

So Becker emerged to meet Agassi, with the winner to play either the defending champion, Pete Sampras, who is unbeaten in 19 matches on the Wimbledon lawns, or Goran Ivanisevic, who is sick of being the world's tallest bridesmaid.

Agassi enjoyed another trouble-free afternoon, winning a 17-shot rally in his opening service game and subduing his game Dutch opponent, Jacco Eltingh, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, with an impressive display of groundstroke play. The Las Vegan could not recall having played better on the lawns. "Today was the best I hit the ball yet, bar none," he enthused.

"I'm just striking it cleanly and taking it early, playing offensive, and not making many errors. Whenever you can piece those things together, good things happen.

"I stunned him a bit with the pace in the first set, and he adjusted to it, with just enough time for me to start bringing in the lob and the angles."

Lest that might seem like a warning to Becker, Agassi added: "It doesn't matter how well I'm returning. You have to play your best tennis, and it also requires a bit of luck." Boris would say Ja to that.

Sampras dropped his third set of the tournament, on this occasion against Shuzo Matsuoka, the fastest gun in the East. The Japanese, who had already mocked his ranking of No 108 by reaching the last eight, won a tie-break, 7-5, to put the champion to the test on Court One.

Had Matsuoka been able to convert one of three break- points he had at 3-3 in the second set, it is possible that Sampras's quest for a hat-trick of titles would have foundered. As it was, the American was allowed to recover from 0-40, Matsuoka missing a cross-court backhand and netting a return on a second serve before Sampras made it deuce with a service winner.

After that, Sampras was able to raise his performance, winning 6-7, 6- 3, 6-4, 6-2, after two hours and 24 minutes. But he agreed that he will need to groove his serve if he is to overcome Ivanisevic tomorrow.

"I think my serve throughout the last week and a half hasn't been great," he said. "That's my best shot. I thought I returned well today, but I'm going to have to play much better if I want to continue in this tournament. My first-serve percentage felt like it was pretty low, and I can't afford that."

No arguments there. Ivanisevic will relish an opportunity to attack Sampras's second deliveries, remembering last year's demoralising experience, when he capitulated 6-0 in the third set of the final after losing consecutive tie-breaks.

The Croat has hit 137 aces in five matches to date, 33 of them yesterday against Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Russian sixth seed. Ivanisevic won, 7-5, 7-6, 6-3, leaving his opponent to rue the four set-points he failed to take in the tie-break, which Ivanisevic won, 13-11.

It was suggested to the Russian afterwards that he had missed an "easy" volley on the third set-point. "It wasn't an easy volley, like you guys think," he said. "I went to Goran's forehand, he did a very good return, and I had a great pick-up to Goran's backhand. Goran just went for the backhand." It is always easier to execute shots when sitting watching matches.

The fourth-seeded Ivanisevic received a code violation after breaking a racket during the tie-break, an indication that he was back on track.

YESTERDAY AT WIMBLEDON

Men's quarter-finals: Becker pushed to the edge by Pioline in match of the Championships so far

Sampras recovers after dropping first set

Agassi and Ivanisevic go through in straight sets

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