In the semi-finals of the Stella Artois tournament yesterday Sampras looked to have a routine passage into today's final. But Jan Apell, a 24-year-old Swede ranked 126 places below him, produced tennis of which any of his more illustrious compatriots would have been proud to push the world No 1 to the brink of defeat.
In the end Sampras came through to win 3-6 7-6 6-2 in an hour and 38 minutes, but not before he had survived a match point against him and been 5-2 down in the second set tie-break. But Sampras did not become the best player in the world without knowing how to keep cool in a crisis, and it was this ability that finally swung the match his way. As a rueful Apell said of the crucial points: 'I played some good shots, but he played even better.'
The most crucial of all came with Sampras serving at 5-6 in the second set. At deuce he served a double-fault, and so inconsistent had his serving been that there was no reason to believe he might find something special now. But he got a deep first serve in and Apell put his return way over the baseline.
Sampras's difficulties were not over yet. With two serves at 5-2 up in the tie-break, the rangy Apell was again poised for victory. He had the chance to put away a smash, but, stretching slightly, made a poor connection and Sampras drove the ball back past him. Then Sampras produced a superb cross-court forehand to get back to 4-5, before a backhand volley, an ace, and a service return that landed just inside the baseline gave him the set.
Apell still looked as if he had something left in him by breaking Sampras's serve in the first game of the third set, but it was deceptive. By then, he said, 'I was mentally so tired', and the way Sampras accelerated away in the closing stages indicated that perhaps the rankings do not lie. From 2-1 down in the third, Sampras only lost five more points as Apell caved in - one hesitates to say crumbled - in the face of Sampras at his most stylish and powerful.
It had all been so different for most of the first two sets, when Apell played near-faultless grass-court tennis. Having been involved in the French Open men's doubles final on the clay of Roland Garros last Sunday, he had already shown how quickly he could adapt to this surface with his third-round win here over Goran Ivanisevic.
His early domination of Sampras was founded upon a consistent serve, delivered with a nice whippy action, and a sharp return of serve. Time and again Sampras followed up his serve to find he was having to pick the ball up off his shoe
laces, and he wasn't enjoying it.
From 30-all in Sampras's second service game, Apell broke with a top-spin lob and a backhand passing shot. And leading 5-3 on Sampras's serve he broke again to take the set with a dipping service return which Sampras could only flip back over the net in a way which invited the winner. Apell held his game together impressively in the second set, but after that it was a different story.
Apell, however, showed more than enough to suggest he could cause trouble at Wimbledon - though unfortunately he won't be there. He was ranked too low to get into the main draw automatically and prefers to go after ranking points at the Manchester tournament next week rather than flog his way through Wimbledon qualifying at Roehampton. Having worked so hard for no reward yesterday, his decision is perhaps understandable.
In the other semi-final, interrupted for 45 minutes by a bomb scare, the American Todd Martin kept his concentration to beat Christo van Rensburg 6-1 6-4. Martin's meeting with Sampras in today's final is a repeat of the Australian Open at the beginning of the year when Sampras won in straight sets.
British tennis, meanwhile, is becoming almost respectable. After another good week for Jeremy Bates, the 17-year-old Jamie Delgado won the Queen's junior tournament, beating Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador 4-6 6-3 6-4 in the final.
Poetry in motion, page 3
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