reports from Queen's Club
We are close enough to Wimbledon for every player's wince or lapse of form to become the subject of deep analysis. Boris Becker and Pete Sampras were among those under the microscope at the Stella Artois Championships yesterday.
Becker scarcely dare blink when he plays Javier Frana after scandalising the All England Club by receiving medical treatment during a bathroom break when playing the Argentinian last year.
Yesterday, a trainer came to the court to attend to the German, applying massage and hot cream to relieve the affects of a spasm in the right calf muscle. Becker was still limping when he came to the interview room after advancing to the quarter-finals with a 6-4, 6-2 win. "Obviously I'm a bit concerned, but I finished the match in a very good way, so I don't think it's too serious," he said.
The question in Sampras' case is whether he can rebuild his confidence in time to peak for a third consecutive Wimbledon triumph after suffering a disastrous clay-court season. There were a few signs of stress in the world No 2's performance against Jeremy Bates, and the elder statesman of the British game at least ought to have taken the match into a third set.
Having only once reached deuce on Sampras' serve in the opening set, Bates subsequently returned well enough to share four breaks with the American, and held a set point at 5-4 in the second. Sampras responded in characteristic fashion, delivering the 11th of his 13 aces.
Bates, who had double faulted to lose the initiative when leading 3- 1, and again to enable his opponent to go ahead, 4-3, made an error of judgement when serving at 5-5, 40-0. He allowed a Sampras return to pass by, believing it was destined to fly beyond the baseline. Instead, it landed about a yard inside the the court.
At the time, Bates joked about it with Sampras and the crowd, but the American won the next four points to break. Bates then had two break points to force a tie-break before Sampras served himself clear to win on his third match point, 6-3, 7-5.
Bates, having discussed his own part in a "patchy, spasmodic" match - "I might have got a hiding in a third set, but I should have taken the chances I had to get there" - was asked to assess the man ranked 88 places above him in the world rankings.
"There is an element of apprehension in his game," he said. "He's not as dominant as he was last year. That's not saying anything. Everybody knows that."
Bates mentioned something else everybody knows. "He has always got his serve when he wants it, and when he needed it it was there. He has the ability to step up a gear." Sampras expressed relief that he got through the match "not playing my best tennis".
Others were not so fortunate, including Todd Martin, the defending champion, and two former champions, Stefan Edberg and Wayne Ferreira.
Martin, who defeated Sampras in last year's final, fell to the Frenchman, Guy Forget, 6-4, 6-4. Edberg, the 1991 champion, whose current ranking is now No 15, lost to Australia's Jason Stoltenberg, 6-3, 0-6, 6-4. And Ferreira, who won the title in 1992, was defeated by the American Derrick Rostagno, 7-5, 6-7, 10-8.