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Tennis: Martin just too strong for Sampras: World No 1 puts the blame for modern-day power game on improved physical attributes after losing without dropping his serve

ONLY five players have defeated Pete Sampras this year, and Todd Martin became the latest yesterday without breaking the world No 1's serve in the final of the Stella Artois Championships. Rumour has it that there was a seven-stroke rally, but it has yet to be confirmed.

Big men with big serves equals small points on fast surfaces. Martin and Sampras were too proficient for the Centre Court lawn at Queen's, and past experience suggests that Wimbledon is unlikely to take much pace out of the power game a week hence.

Martin, ranked eight places lower but standing five inches higher at 6ft 6in, served and returned the better over the 93 minutes to win 7-6, 7-6 and deny Sampras his 50th victory of the year. The 23-year-old from Michigan joins an assorted elite of Sampras stoppers: a Moroccan, Karim Alami (in Qatar); a Dutchman, Jacco Eltingh (in Philadelphia); a German, Michael Stich (in Dusseldorf); and a fellow American, Jim Courier (at the French Open).

The Wimbledon, United States and Australian Open champion had done well to last until Sunday, having survived a match point against Sweden's Jan Apell, ranked No 127, in the semi-finals.

Sun blessed the final, as it did last year, when Stich's straight-sets win against South Africa's Wayne Ferreira failed to inspire the 6,000 spectators. On that occasion, the German simply served too well for his opponent. For the most part yesterday, that applied on both sides of the net. Martin hit 15 aces to Sampras's 14 and served two double faults to four from his rival.

There were only three break points. Two were against Sampras in the second game of the match. He double-faulted to offer a chance at 30-30, only for Martin to direct a return over the baseline. Sampras then hit a backhand wide, but saved himself with a backhand volley.

In the following game, Martin delivered an ace for 40-0 and then saw the points eaten away by Sampras's returns. One of them, a forehand down the line, gave Sampras the chance to break, but Martin produced a winning serve.

Sampras, who had recovered from 2-5 in a second set tie-break against Apell, was allowed no escape on this occasion. He double- faulted for 2-4, and Martin held firm to take first shoot-out, 7-4.

In the second tie-break, Martin attacked Sampras's serve to lead 3- 2 and closed the contest, 7-4, again with a smash on his third match point.

But what about the poor spectators? 'Maybe it's a bit like watching cricket,' Sampras said before taking the point seriously. 'As big as we're serving, our offensive game is almost too good for this surface. It's almost impossible to break serve. In the last five years the speed of the game has pushed up. It's not the most exciting tennis to watch, but that's the surface we're playing on.'

He did not agree that racket technology is responsible. 'I've been using the same racket for six or seven years,' he said. 'I just think the guys are getting stronger and quicker and are serving a lot bigger.' He suggested that ball changes on grass and indoor courts be made after nine and 11 games instead of seven and nine. 'That might slow it up a bit.'

It was Martin's first contest with Sampras on grass, and his first win against him at the fourth attempt. Their last meeting was in the Australian Open final in January. Having added the Queen's title to those he has won in Coral Springs and Memphis, he was in no mood to fret about public stimulation.

'The amount of shots hit may not be as much, but if people understand the ebb and flow of a match then I think they should enjoy it,' he said. 'It was a close match, and the fact that one type of play dominated should not matter as much as the fact that we both played well, and they should appreciate that.'

(Photograph omitted)