Tennis: Sampras confirms his status as the master of his art

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The Independent Online
He has been described as dull - boring, even - but when it came to voting for the top man of the past 25 years, the professional tennis community decided that Pete Sampras was simply the best. John Roberts reports.

While Luciano Pavarotti was making the draw for the ATP Tour Championship at Hannover, Pete Sampras mentioned to Greg Rusedski that he had attended a concert the previous evening. In his laid-back Californian manner, Sampras paid Pavarotti the highest compliment - "He can sing." Pavarotti no doubt considers that Sampras can play, not that the American needs a great tenor to sing his praises.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Association of Tennis Professionals, which in 1990 became the ATP Tour, 100 current and past players, tournament directors and members of the media voted for their top 25 players. Sampras was the No 1, just as he has been in the year-end world rankings for the past five years.

The announcement was made on the court on Sunday after 15,000 spectators and millions of television viewers had marvelled at the maestro's performance in winning the ATP Tour Championship for the fourth time. In the final Sampras outclassed Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov in every department of the game to triumph 6-3, 6- 2, 6-2.

In the ATP ballot Sampras received 26 first-place votes and finished with 779 points, 25 points ahead of Sweden's Bjorn Borg. Two of Sampras's fiery compatriots came next, Jimmy Connors at No 3 and John McEnroe at No 4.

The other day, in conversation with McEnroe, your correspondent asked the turbulent one if he was amused to be regarded as an elder statesman nowadays in view of his rebellious career. He smiled wrily and cited the passage of time. With regard to the perception of Sampras as peerless but colourless, McEnroe pointed out that Borg was not exactly riotous.

Philippe Bouin, of the French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe, described Sampras as "an attacking Borg who does not have the devil of a McEnroe, a Connors or a Nastase". From the personality aspect, Borg, and Ivan Lendl, were ideal counterpoints to their rumbustious rivals. These days, the argument goes, there are too many straight men and not enough comedians.

If the vote for Sampras was a commendation for pure tennis, the result of the poll was not a slight on anybody. As an ATP Tour spokesman stressed: "Several of the sport's great players were nearing the end of their careers when the Open era began in 1968 and the ATP was formed in 1972. None the less, such was their impact on men's tennis that voters gave stars such as Laver and Rosewall a great deal of support in the balloting."

The year-end ATP Tour rankings reflect the changing face of the top 10, at least in the pecking order below the 26-year-old Sampras. Australia's Pat Rafter, who defeated Britain's Greg Rusedski in the United States Open final, is due to attend a civic reception in Brisbane tomorrow. Rafter's rise to No 2 is bound to add even greater interest to the Australian Open in Melbourne in January.

Whatever next year may bring, 1997 has marked an astonishing revival in the British men's game. Rusedski, the man with the world's fastest serve (143 mph), has been as high as No 4 and finishes at No 6 after qualifying for the ATP Tour Championship. Tim Henman, a career-high No 14 at one stage, prepares for the new campaign as No 17.

Henman, who won the Guardian Direct National Championship at Telford for a third consecutive year on Sunday, and also made time to beat Kafelnikov as a substitute in a round-robin match at Hannover, will need to be sharp at the start of the year. The 23-year-old from Oxford has ranking points to defend at Doha, where he was the runner-up to Jim Courier, and as the title-holder at Sydney.

Many discussions during the ATP Tour finale at Hannover revolved around proposed changes in the structure of the sport for the year 2000. One major improvement, however, is designed to have an immediate effect on players' commitment to the most important tournaments, the four Grand Slams.

Mark Miles, the ATP Tour's chief executive, explained: "We thought it was time in our sport where we could say to players: `If you're ranked high enough to get in the Grand Slams, if you're ranked high enough to be entered in our top-tier Tour events, then it is part of your responsibility. You don't send us an entry - you play automatically'."

The best IN 25 years of the ATP

The top 10 Pts

1 Pete Sampras 779 (26)

2 Bjorn Borg 754 (17)

3 John McEnroe 721 (13)

4 Jimmy Connors 634 (9)

5 Ivan Lendl 493 (3)

6 Boris Becker 446 (0)

7 Stefan Edberg 372 (1)

8 Rod Laver 360 (14)

9 Mats Wilander 209 (0)

10 Ilie Nastase 185 (0)

(first place votes in parentheses)

The best of the rest

(in alphabetical order)

Andre Agassi, Arthur Ashe, Sergi Bruguera, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Vitas Gerulaitis, Goran Ivanisevic, Thomas Muster, John Newcombe, Yannick Noah, Manuel Orantes, Ken Rosewall, Stan Smith, Michael Stich, Guillermo Vilas.

Votes were cast by 100 current and past players, tournament directors and the media to select the top 25 players, including a top 10, of the 25 years since the Association of Tennis Players (now the ATP Tour) was formed in 1972. Points were awarded on the basis of 10 for a first-place vote, nine for a second-place, eight for a third place, and so on, with one point for a 10th-place vote.

FINAL 1997 ATP WORLD RANKINGS

1 P Sampras (US) 4,547 pts

2 P Rafter (Aus) 3,210

3 M Chang (US) 3,189

4 J Bjorkman (Swe) 2,949

5 Y Kafelnikov (Rus) 2,690

6 G Rusedski (GB) 2,617

7 C Moya (Sp) 2,508

8 S Bruguera (Sp) 2,367

9 T Muster (Aut) 2,353

10 M Rios (Chile) 2,317

11 R Krajicek (Neth) 2,299

12 A Corretja (Sp) 2,275

13 P Korda (Cz) 2,261

14 G Kuerten (Br) 2,215

15 G Ivanisevic (Croa) 2,176

16 F Mantilla (Sp) 2,110

17 T Henman (GB) 1,929

18 M Philippoussis (Aus) 1,809

19 A Costa (Sp) 1,778

20 C Pioline (Fr) 1,534

Leading prize-money winners:

1 Sampras $6,498,311; 2 Kafelnikov 3,207,757; 3 Rafter 2,923,519; 4 Chang 2,541,830; 5 Muster 2,166,590; 6 Bjorkman 1,950,375; 7 Kuerten 1,586,753; 8 Korda 1,515,483; 9 Rusedski 1,515,473; 10 Ivanisevic 1,458,257; 11 Krajicek 1,434,564; 12 Rios 1,397,445; 13 T Woodbridge (Aus) 1,295,918; 14 Bruguera (Sp) 1,227,428; 15 Corretja 1,182,807; 16 Moya 1,137,400; 17 M Woodforde (Aus) 1,126,627; 18 Mantilla 1,105,593; 19 Pioline 999,701; 20 Philippoussis (Aus) 904,211.

Other British world rankings:

143 A Richardson 312; 151 C Wilkinson 295; 154 M Petchey 292; 210 D Sapsford 200; 285 M Lee 129; 294 L Milligan 12; 321 M Maclagan 104; 364 J Delgado 84; 401 B Cowan 70; 450 A Parmar 59.

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