Tennis: Sampras and Graf end century in style

t THE CLASS OF '99 Older generation outshines a galaxy of young talent but the new millennium promises a starburst especially in women's game
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HAVING ENDED his pain-racked season with a straight-sets victory against Andre Agassi in Hanover to win the ATP Tour Championship for a fifth time, Pete Sampras was asked whether he fancied France or Australia to lift the Davis Cup in Nice next weekend. "I'm going to be laying on a beach," Sampras said. "The other guys can fight it out."

Sampras, switching off before turning his mind and body to the next campaign, which starts in Australia in January, also did not appear concerned that the year-end position of No 1 in the world rankings, which he had cornered for the previous six years, had been taken over by Agassi.

Had Sunday's triumph, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4, served as a message to Agassi: you're No 1 for the season, but I'm still the best player in the world? "We can argue about that all day," Sampras replied. "You look at the way he's performed over the [Grand] Slams. He's been more consistent. He's played more. He deserves to be No 1. To win two Slams and be in the final of another, that doesn't happen very often."

Sampras missed the Australian Open in order to recover from exhaustion. He was defeated in the second round of the French Open by the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev, who went on to lose to Agassi in the final. A back injury, which occurred while Sampras was practising on the day before the United States Open, put him out of the last Grand Slam championship of the season.

By then, Sampras had already enhanced his reputation as one of the greatest players of the century, both as a winner and as a stylist, with a breathtaking performance in defeating Agassi in the Wimbledon final, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5. It was Sampras's sixth Wimbledon title in seven years (the Dutchman Richard Krajicek defeated him in the quarter-finals in 1996), and made him the most prolific Wimbledon men's singles champion of the century.

Sampras's win also brought him level with Australia's Roy Emerson, with whom he shares the record of 12 Grand Slam singles titles.

Sampras had to play brilliantly to eclipse Agassi at Wimbledon, because his rival did very little wrong, having arrived at the All England Club emboldened by his deeds on the slow clay courts of Paris. Agassi's win at the French Open (a feat which has eluded Sampras) made him only the fifth man in history to complete a set of the four Grand Slam singles titles, in company with Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver and Emerson.

Agassi's career has been reborn during the course of the past two years by virtue of hard work and application. It is astonishing to think that his world ranking had slumped to No 141 in November 1997. And he has the audacity to call Sampras "Lazarus"!

Appropriately, Agassi's coronation at the French Open coincided with a last major triumph for Steffi Graf, who won a dramatic and emotional women's singles final against Martina Hingis, the leader of the younger generation.

Hingis's tantrums and tears after losing from a dominating position contrasted with Graf's calm maturity as the German recovered to win, 4-6, 7-5, 6- 2. It was her 22nd Grand Slam singles title. The Australian Margaret Court, with 24, is the only woman to have won more.

As with Agassi, Graf lost in the Wimbledon final, unable to match the power of the American Lindsay Davenport, who won, 6-4, 7-5, for her first singles title at the All England Club. Graf announced her retirement before the US Open, but she was there cheering Agassi to victory against his compatriot Todd Martin, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2.

Since then, Agassi and Graf have evolved into a soap opera, their friendship filling acres of newsprint, especially in Germany, where the retirement of both Graf and Boris Becker has left a huge void in the tennis scene.

Graf, the former prodigy who ended the marvellous era of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, inevitably found herself overtaken by younger, fresher legs, and a new wave of awesome power; not only did Davenport demonstrate this at Wimbledon, but at the US Open Serena Williams, aged 17, secured her first major title sooner than expected, becoming the first African- American woman to win a major for 41 years.

Williams defeated Hingis in the final, 6-3, 7-6, after the Swiss world No 1 had been drained the day before in overcoming Serena's older sister, Venus, in the semi-finals. So Hingis had to make do with her continued success in Melbourne, where she won both the singles and doubles titles at the Australian Open for the third consecutive year. In the singles final, Hingis defeated the powerful French contender, Amelie Mauresmo, 6-2, 6-3.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov also started the year well, defeating Sweden's Thomas Enqvist, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-6, to win the men's singles title in Australia. It was only a matter of time before the Russian would become the world No 1, but the timing proved embarrassing. Kafelnikov eventually rose to the top in spite of losing his opening round match in six consecutive tournaments.

Carlos Moya, of Spain, and Australia's Pat Rafter also took turns in supplanting Sampras as the No 1 until Agassi restored some credibility to the ranking system by reigning in the grand manner.

Although the British game ended the season on a note of anticlimax, with both Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski dropping out of the world's top 10, having grown accustomed to living with the best, the year has had its moments for home supporters.

Henman tested Sampras on the grass courts of London's Queen's Club in the final of the Stella Artois Championships, and three weeks later challenged the Californian again in the Wimbledon semi-finals. As in the previous year, Sampras deprived Britain of a men's singles finalist, but Henman edged closer this time before Sampras, the supreme grass-court player, pulled clear, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.

Rusedski won the Grand Slam Cup in Munich and banked $1.3m (pounds 835,000), and he and Henman were the focal point of two memorable Davis Cup ties in Birmingham.

The first, a rousing contest against the United States at Easter, was won by the Americans in the fifth set of the fifth and final rubber. The second, a win against South Africa, safeguarded Britain's place in the 16-strong World Group.

Henman and Rusedski, both of whom are due to get married in the next two weeks, will do well to match the nation's expectations next year. But perhaps it is worth remembering that less than a decade ago, Britain's only expectation concerning tennis was that Wimbledon would make a hefty profit.