Sampras honed by marathon run

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The Independent Online


reports from Queen's Club

If Pete Sampras was in need of match practice before attempting to win the Wimbledon singles title for a third consecutive year, it came in abundance yesterday. The American contested five sets of singles over three hours and 18 minutes, saved three match points, won the Stella Artois Championship, 6-7, 6-2, 13-11, 7-6, 7-6 - and then went out and played doubles for another two hours.

The marathon was in three stages. First came the singles semi-final, postponed from Saturday because of rain. Sampras squeezed past Marc Goellner, a 24-year-old German ranked No 73 in the world, 6-7, 6-2, 13-11.

In the final set, Goellner had three break points for 5-1, Sampras saving them with an ace, a service-winner and a volley. The German created his first two match points when serving at 5-3. He double-faulted on the first, and on the second Sampras passed him with a backhand cross-court return from a second serve. Goellner's third opportunity to win a place in the final came at 8-7. Sampras produced an ace to save it.

There was a rumour that the players had booked the Centre Court for the day, but after serving to stay in the match on seven occasions, Sampras managed to break for 12-11 and clinched victory with a smash on his first match point.

Had Sampras failed, he would have left Queen's Club with four useful matches behind him, but with a degree of doubt in his mind. As events transpired, he rested for a couple of hours, went back out for the final, and played some of his best tennis for months to defeat the 11th-seeded Guy Forget, of France, 7-6, 7-6.

"I was definitely living nine lives in the semis, that's for sure," Sampras said. "It's plain and simple. I was lucky to come through that Goellner match, and when I came out to play Forget, I just felt a lot better. This morning I felt a little bit flat and sluggish, and this afternoon it was the best I've served in a long time. It seemed like I was picking my spot and hitting it pretty hard."

Forget, whose ranking will rise from No 28 today, giving a timely nudge to the Wimbledon seedings committee, had followed his quarter-final win against Goran Ivanisevic, the third seed, by defeating Boris Becker, the No 2 seed and three-times former champion, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Becker, who has suffered from a strained muscle in his right calf, returned to Munich to consult his doctor. "Playing every day hasn't helped, but I don't think the injury is going to be a factor at Wimbledon," Becker said. He is due to address the Oxford Union on Wednesday, along with his coach, the Amercan, Nick Bollettieri.

The semi-finals provided the excitement, while the Sampras-Forget final was yet another example of two fine servers minimising the length of the points. It was reminiscent of last year's final between Sampras and his compatriot, Todd Martin, which was also settled by two tie-breaks after neither player had been broken or even offered a break point.

Searching for differences yesterday, the obvious one was that Sampras defeated a left-hander, whereas last year he lost to a right-hander. In the dry, sunny conditions, the new, softer, heavier balls whizzed by just the same. Sampras conceded only 10 points on his serve, including the tie-breaks. He won the first 7-3 and the second 8-6, and out-aced Forget, 21-15.

The only rally worth mentioning was a 10-shot exchange to decide the final point of the seventh game, concluded when Forget overhit a forehand as Sampras slipped. "It came down to a couple of points in the tie-breakers," Sampras said. "As big as we're serving, and as well as we're serving today, you're not going to see a lot of rallies. To get the serve back is a pretty good effort." After a massage and interviews with the media, Sampras returned to the Centre Court a third time to partner Martin against the Australians, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, in the doubles semi-finals. The Americans won 6-3, 3-6, 12-10 and are due back today to meet the Swedes Jan Apell and Jonas Bjorkman in the final.

"A very busy day," Sampras said. "But going into Wimbledon I feel pretty good."

Ladbrokes like the look of the champion. They have made Sampras 5-6 favourite, with Andre Agassi 4-1, Becker 6-1 and Forget down to 66-1 from 200-1.