Tennis: Sampras era sealed in rare style
Monday 17 November 1997
John Roberts, in Hannover, witnessed an uncomfortable afternoon for the Russian.
Having dismissed his round-robin defeat by Tim Henman, Friday's sub of the day, as an "exhibition", Yevgeny Kafelnikov might have used the same term for Pete Sampras' masterly performance in yesterday's ATP Tour Championship final. The Russian could do little more than gawp in admiration as the defending champion swept past him in 88 minutes, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
Kafelnikov was not alone in being awe-struck, and the post-match presentations appropriately included a tribute to the sport's sometimes unappreciated leading man. Along with the trophy and a cheque for $700,000 [pounds 425,000], Sampras received the ultimate accolade from 100 current and past players, tournament directors and the media. He was voted No 1 player in the 25 years since the formation of the Association of Tennis Professionals.
On days like yesterday, Sampras' breathtaking tennis transcends ancillary consideration such as a personality devoid of inclinations to smash rackets and verbally abuse umpires, line judges and anybody else who might be handy to blame for anything and everything that might go wrong.
Not that much went wrong for Sampras yesterday, at least after a bizarre opening five games in which both players' serve was up for grabs. "From the middle of the first set, pretty much to the end of the match, everything just clicked," Sampras said. "It's an unbelievable feeling when everything just comes together and you feel like anything you try out there is going to work. It's so much fun, it really is."
It was not such fun to be on Kafelnikov's side of the net. "I wanted to go off the court after the first set because I knew it was going to get worse for me," said the 23-year-old from the Black Sea resort of Sochi. "I couldn't stand on the same level as him."
Kafelnikov broke in the opening game, triggering a sequence in which both men were broken twice. From that point, Sampras' game soared and Kafelnikov's sank. The American conceded only eight points in his last 10 service games and hit a total of 16 aces. Kafelnikov faced break points in nine of his 12 service games and was broken seven times.
"I wanted this one," Sampras said after taking the title for a fourth time. "Even though I lost my first match [against Carlos Moya] I felt I was still in it, that I just needed my game to click. I know deep down that when my game clicks I feel like at times I'm unbeatable."
Sampras took the first set after 33 minutes, making the decisive break for 5-3. He was returning Kafelnikov's serve with such confidence by this time that the Russian became flustered on the key points. Having been broken for 1-2 in the second set, he double-faulted twice in slumping to 1-4.
Two sets ahead after 59 minutes, Sampras broke again at the start of the third set, and the capacity crowd of 15,000 were moved to cheer virtually every point that went Kafelnikov's way. There were moments when even the netcord played a part in Sampras' tour de force, though even the odd touch of fortune was born of an adventurous spirit. "I play my best when I don't think," he said. "It's all reaction. It's all instinct. I just went out and did it."
Today, Sampras goes into his 200th week as the world No 1 and equals Jimmy Connors' record of ending the year at the top for five consecutive years. If he needed a vote of confidence, it was delivered on the ballot slips of his peers.
"It's very flattering to have the respect from people in tennis," the champion said. "That's not the main reason I play this game, for the attention, but it makes you feel like you're making some sort of impact on the game." His impact yesterday was profound.
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