Tennis: Lords of the lawns unseated: Guy Hodgson on the power of youth that has upset Wimbledon's old order in the most open men's singles for 40 years

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THE whiff of charred reputation drifts across Centre Court this week. Barely a day after tennis's aristocrats had taken their places in the quarter-finals of the men's singles and they were gone. To a Wimbledon audience, the overwhelming majority of whom hardly acknowledge the sport outside this fortnight, it must have appeared that the established order had been turned upside down.

On Wednesday there were four former champions left in the draw. By lunchtime on Thursday only one, the unseeded John McEnroe, was left. For the first time since 1951 not one of the top four seeds had reached the semi-finals. Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Michael Stich, who between them had six Wimbledon championships and had monopolised the men's singles since 1987, had been lost in a tide of youth.

Edberg, the winner in 1988 and 1990, disappeared in a puff of serving smoke, manhandled off No 1 court by 33 aces from his gangling 20-year-old Croatian opponent, Goran Ivanisevic. 'I was having great trouble returning,' the Swede said without a hint of irony. 'He will be very difficult to beat serving like this. He just bounces the ball twice and then 'boom'.'

Meanwhile Becker, nicknamed 'Boom Boom' when his own serve used to be the most potent weapon in the grass-court game, was coming to terms with his sixth successive defeat by Andre Agassi, two years his junior at 22. It was testament to the power of return, Agassi bypassing the German with such accurate and powerful groundstrokes that the server was caught in a dilemma about whether to go to the net. Normally Becker advances almost as readily as he breathes.

'He plays not great all year,' Becker said, 'and then, when he sees my face on a tennis court, he just steps two gears up. It was not a matter of me playing bad, it was one of my best games of the tournament. I was serving good, I was playing good. He just hit me with shots that are not in the book.

'You cannot play better tennis than he did. If he keeps this form he is going to win the title, but it is a different morning tomorrow and a different day.'

Only Stich, the reigning champion, could cling to the consolation that he had been beaten by a player higher than himself in the rankings. Pete Sampras is the third best player in the world and owed his demotion to fifth seed to a string of disappointing results at the All England Club.

Sampras spent the week after his surprising defeat by Brad Gilbert at Queen's working almost exclusively on his returns, a weakness he says has contributed to his poor record at Wimbledon. 'With so few rallies,' he said, 'the return of serve takes on a greater significance. It becomes the most important stroke in the game.'

Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier, two of the hardest servers around, were among those who helped Sampras, and the 20-year-old obviously learns his lessons quickly. 'He just killed me,' Stich said after a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 defeat in 87 minutes. 'It must have been his best match ever on grass.'

The wind of change at Wimbledon may have seemed irresistible this year but it began to blow two years ago. While lack of grass play has masked the progress of the younger players in Britain, elsewhere they have been spectacularly successful. Sampras won the US Open in 1990, three months after Agassi reached the first of his three grand slam finals in France. In the same year Ivanisevic announced his Wimbledon intentions by reaching the semi-finals and losing to Becker after the then Yugoslav had been on the verge of a two-set lead.

Indeed it could be argued that the one true surprise at Wimbledon this year was not the eliminations of Becker and co, but the beating for Jim Courier, the 21- year-old world No 1, by Russia's Andrei Olhovskiy

'You are old by the time you are 25 in this game these days,' Becker, who has had a wretched year and appears to be suffering a tennis mid-life crisis, once said. He reaches that age in November.

It was left to John McEnroe to carry the banner longest for the older generation. The 33-year-old American is not from the Becker- Edberg generation but a throwback to a previous dynasty when Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors were in their prime. He was blessed with a kind draw this time until he ran into an inspired Agassi yesterday and a personal slump in form.

He has not been bewitched by the praise that has been heading his way from potential opponents. 'I think it's a gimmick,' he said. 'You know, 'We're really honoured to play him, and we'd like to kiss his ass'. I don't believe in all that garbage. They say they're honoured to play me but if, by some chance, I win, they're not so happy.'

For Agassi there was both the honour and the victory. Wimbledon could happily contemplate a new champion and a mushrooming of interest. The Championships cannot lose.

(Photograph omitted)