Tennis: Becker watches Sampras sparkle: World No 1 adds Italian Open title to his portfolio and looks well set for his fourth Grand Slam victory in a row

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The Independent Online
PETE SAMPRAS could be approaching greatness. In winning the Italian Open - he completed the job yesterday by blowing Boris Becker off the clay, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 in an hour and 52 minutes - the Wimbledon champion has shown that he has the all-round ability to emulate his hero, Rod Laver.

Already so far ahead in the world rankings as to be a blur on the horizon, Sampras is capable of winning his fourth Grand Slam championship in a row at the forthcoming French Open, and then successfully defending his Wimbledon and United States Open titles to complete a traditional Grand Slam in a calendar year. Laver was the last male to achieve that, in 1969, a repeat of his triumph in the amateur days of 1962.

The 22-year-old Sampras, wisely, is being cautious. While delighted to have won here this week after experiencing difficulty adjusting his movement to the slow surface, he did not read too much into yesterday's victory.

He was conscious that Becker's game was off: only 34 per cent of his first serves found the target, and when Becker's serve is erratic he looks more ponderous than ever on clay.

Sampras also owned up to 'making a couple of errors' and not serving particularly well himself, though he acknowledged that this was 'nit-picking', having arrived from America after a month off to win his seventh title of the year.

It actually troubles Sampras slightly that he has won 27 consecutive matches since losing to the Dutchman, Jacco Eltingh, in Philadelphia in February. 'I haven't lost in a while, but maybe that's not so good coming up to Paris,' he said, admitting that names such as Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier are playing on his mind.

Becker, like Sampras, is a man for the faster courts, and it is interesting that the only player who took a set off the American here was Alex Corretja. The Spaniard, who led Sampras 0-2 in the final set of their second- round match, defeated Becker in the first round of the previous week's German Open.

Victories while making errors against baseliners such as Aaron Krickstein, Corretja and Andrei Chesnokov, built Sampras's confidence to such a pitch that Becker's attacking style was easily dismantled.

'He beat the hell out of me,' Becker told a capacity Centre Court crowd of 8,000, who had already acknowledged the fact by giving Sampras a standing ovation.

Becker, whose earlier form at least takes him back into the top 10 today, could not praise Sampras too highly. 'Pete is eating, dreaming and doing everything for tennis right now,' he said. 'He's just flying. He thinks he's invincible. He's playing tennis like no one has ever played against me. I can only compare him to the best of the best, and I was lucky to have the best seat in the house today.'

Sampras certainly looked that way yesterday, aided by Becker's rapid slump into dejection. A double fault - one of only two by Sampras in the entire match - gave Becker a break point in the opening game, but he netted a forehand and then had to watch his opponent hit the lines with soul- destroying regularity.

The first set was over in only 35 minutes, and Becker began his customary cries of frustration after immediately losing his serve in the opening game of the second set.

When Sampras passed him down the line on the second point of the fourth game, Becker walked to the back of the court and raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders at the front-row spectators. They understood perfectly, and tried to encourage him with applause. Sampras was also reading the signals from Becker's drooping frame, and responded less sympathetically. He dropped only four points on his serve in the set.

Becker's shouts of anguish echoed round the Foro Italico again when he was broken to love at the start of the second set. The German created a break point with a high backhand volley in the following game, and shared a joke with spectators as Sampras went to change his racket after missing his first serve on the next point. The humour was short-lived, Becker netting a backhand while trying to parry a Sampras drive.

It was all over bar the presentations.

STEFFI GRAF broke one of the most powerful serves in the women's game just once yesterday, but that was enough for the top seed to win her eighth German Open title by beating the 11th seed Brenda Schultz, of the Netherlands, 7-6, 6-4, in Berlin. Graf had trouble with Schultz's 120mph delivery but broke her in the third game of the second set after Schultz missed a backhand slice following a double fault.

(Photograph omitted)