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Tennis: Henman pushes Sampras to limit

AS PETE SAMPRAS raised the singles trophy - a pot big enough for even Sir Alex Ferguson to covet - after edging victory against Britain's Tim Henman in the final of the Stella Artois Championships yesterday, a spectator cried out what the majority in a crowd of 7,000 may have been thinking: "He'll get you at Wimbledon!"

Wishful, perhaps, but Henman came closer to defeating Sampras here than in any of their previous four matches, two of which were at Wimbledon, including last year's semi-final. The crux came at 4-4 in a tie-break in the final set, when Henman's smash down the line was not full-blooded, and Sampras's top-spin backhand lob landed plumb on the baseline.

"I could have hit the ball deeper," Henman said, "but that top-spin lob on my baseline was an incredible shot."

Precisely. One of the most fascinating finals for years on the Queen's Club lawns was decided by one or two points, and Sampras has a habit of securing them when it matters, which is why he has won Wimbledon five times and has reigned as the world No 1 for the past six years.

The 27-year-old American, who won 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 after two hours and 30 minutes, will be seeded No 1 when the Wimbledon list is announced today. The 24-year-old Henman probably will be seeded No 6, in accordance with his world ranking. Today the two friends plan to play golf together, and Sampras confidently expects Henman to win that contest (he usually does).

When Henman first played Sampras on the tennis tour, there was almost a case for Sampras to be handicapped, but that no longer applies. Henman deserved to be neck-and-neck with the finest player of the decade, particularly after saving three set points on his serve in the opening set, two in the 10th game, the other in the 12th. In between, Sampras had to rescue two break points at 5-5.

Sampras's confidence in his serve wavered at times, and one of his nine double-faults gave Henman the incentive to take the first set tie-break. Sampras did not win another point from 1-3, Henman winning the shoot out 7-1 after 61 minutes.

Henman's momentum slowed in the third game of the second set, when he was broken after hitting a backhand volley beyond the baseline on the third break point. A potent forehand service return gave Henman a chance to recover the break when Sampras was serving at 5-4, 30-40 to level the match, but a backhand aimed down the line landed wide.

Both players continued to produce tennis of the highest quality, helped, perhaps, by a court that was playing more like a medium-pace hard court than the slick lawns at the All England Club, and Henman had four chances to break in the final set before the match reached the concluding tie- break.

Three of the break points came with Henman leading 2-1. Sampras served well enough at his second attempt on the first break point for his opponent to miss with a backhand return. Henman then missed a line with a forehand on the second, and Sampras saved the third with a low forehand volley after a brisk exhange of shots at the net.

Henman was given no chance to convert the fourth break point, at 3-2, as Sampras followed a solid serve with a perfect forehand volley.

The tie-break might have gone either way until Henman gave Sampras the chance to display his skill under pressure at 4-4, and the American closed out the match 7-4 in the shoot-out with a typical serve and forehand volley.

As for Wimbledon, Sampras predicts that Henman will be a leading contender for his title, along with Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, Goran Ivanisevic, three times a bridesmaid, Richard Krajicek, the 1996 champion, and two Australians, Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis.

Few would contradict that view, though both Sampras and Henman were aware of the attentive presence of the strawberry blond who watched most of their match from a Queen's Club balcony.

Boris Becker, who is about to go into his final fling at Wimbledon, says he does expect to be seeded with his ranking as low No 82.

"That's a good question," Sampras said, giving the matter serious thought. "He's going to be a dangerous floater if he's not seeded. He's not the guy you want to meet in the first round."


Sampras leads 5-0

1994 (Tokyo): concrete, round of 16. Sampras won 6-1 6-2

1995 (Wimbledon): grass, second round. Sampras won 6-2 6-3 7-6

1998 (Wimbledon): grass, semi- final. Sampras won 6-3 4-6 7-5 6-3

1998 (Vienna): carpet, quarter- final. Sampras won 6-0 6-3

1999 (Queen's Club): grass, final. Sampras won 6-7 6-4 7-6