Sampras swift to secure his place in history

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The Independent Online

Tennis Correspondent

There was a moment on the Centre Court yesterday when Pete Sampras turned to a section of the crowd after hitting one of a plethora of winners, smiled good-naturedly, raised his hands like Bruce Forsyth, and cajoled them to cheer for him. He understood why there was so much sympathic support for Boris Becker, but he wanted his share of appreciation.

And why not? There he was, winning the Wimbledon men's singles final without offering his opponent so much as a break-point and adding his name to those of Fred Perry and Bjorn Borg, having accomplished a hat- trick of titles. The fellow happens to be a great player. Moreover, he brings splendid weather with him.

The All England Club craved an exciting men's final after two years of domination by the power and consistency of Sampras's serve. It became a slim hope the moment Becker eliminated Andre Agassi, the world No 1, whose capacity to return serve, allied to all-round groundstroke skills, might have created more of a balance. Then again, on yesterday's form, Agassi may have gone the way of Becker.

What we witnessed again yesterday was a consummate craftsman at work on his favourite surface. Becker may have carried the well of popular support, but Sampras did not allow it to spill over and threaten to wash him away. The 23-year-old American triumphed, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2, in two hours and 28 minutes, conceding only 22 points on his serve. This makes him one of thriftiest champions in history.

The first set was as close as the match came to developing into a meaty contest. Becker, having saved the only break point, on his opening service game, took Sampras to deuce in the seventh game. After that, it was on to the tie-break.

Even then, Sampras fared better than Agassi, who took only two points in his two shoot-outs with Becker on Friday. After double-faulting on the fifth point, Sampras went 2-4 in arrears when Becker ended a seven- shot rally with a smash. This produced an enormous roar, partly because of the unusually high ratio of shots, but chiefly because Becker had gained the initiative. Sampras recovered to lead, 5-4, thanks to the fourth of his 23 aces, followed by a service winner. But Becker prevailed, getting his backhand to a second serve and causing his opponent to misdirect a low backhand response to the return.

In other circumstances, this breakthrough, after 47 minutes, surely would have inspired Becker to pound into submission any man daring to stand between him and a fourth Wimbledon title. But a toll had been exacted in the matches leading up to his first Grand Slam final since losing to his compatriot Michael Stich in 1991.

Surviving a marathon quarter-final against the Frenchman Cedric Pioline, 9-7 in the fifth set, and recovering from a set and 4-1 down to rattle Agassi in the semi-finals had rendered Becker battle-weary rather than battle-hardened for the severest test of all.

The 27-year-old German became heavy of leg on a hot day (90F-plus) against a blistering opponent. Once he lost his serve in the third game of the second set, netting a backhand after Sampras had returned a smash, everything became a struggle.

Having played bareheaded to this point, Becker tried wearing a cap, only to discover that he was already in the shade. After a time, he discarded it, deciding that if he was going to bow out, it would be as the crowd have known him best over the past decade, grinning broadly beneath the ginger nut.

He tried his best to impersonate the bold Boris of old, but striving for something extra on a serve that boomed too infrequently had the self- defeating effect of donating 15 double-faults to Sampras's side of the scoreboard, often at crucial moments.

Joking with the crowd may have helped alleviate some depressing moments, but chipping points off Sampras's serve was becoming a task beyond him. He must have begun to wonder if the opening set was only a dream, that in reality he was in the process of being blown off the court in straight sets.

Becker fought through six deuces before losing serve to go 1-2 down in the third set, double-faulting each time Sampras thought an opportunity had passed. The American, by contrast, did not drop a point on his serve in the set until the concluding game, when Becker saw a deuce, which became a mirage as Sampras slipped in two more aces, the first off a second delivery.

Follow that! Becker did, by double-faulting three times to lose the opening game of the fourth set. Sampras then had two break points for 4-1, but Becker managed to delay the inevitable for three more games, loath to leave the court he regards as a second home. Or at least he did until Sampras evicted him.

"He owns the Centre Court," Becker acknowledged. "It used to be mine in the Eighties, now it belongs to him."

Sampras dedicated the title to his coach, Tim Gullikson, who is back in Illinois receiving treatment for a brain tumour. Sampras, it will be remembered, broke down in tears when reminded of Gullikson while playing Jim Courier, in a magnificent semi-final at the Australian Open in January.

Gullikson's twin brother, Tom, the United States Davis Cup captain, was among "Pistol Pete's" supporters yesterday. For Sampras, the shouts of "Pistol" were uncannily and reassuringly familiar. "Tom sounded just like Tim," he said. "Just to have him there made me feel really good on the court."

To be fair, the Centre Court rose to the champion at the end, recognising a remarkable talent. Some of these same people loved Borg because of his unflappability in the face of the raging of Connors and McEnroe. It is good that they are learning to admire Sampras for what he is, realising that he cannot be other than that. It looks as though he's going to run and run, and dear Fred Perry, for one, would delight in the fact that such a worthy successor to omnipresence is carrying the baton.



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Sampras Becker

23 Aces 16

7 Double faults 15

54% First serves in 52%

86% Second serves in 78%

77% Service points won 60%

91% Points won on first serve 79%

61% Points won on second serve 39%

116 ave 129 max First serve (mph) 113 ave 123 max

95 ave 106 max Second serve (mph) 100 ave 113 max

56% Total points won 44%