Tennis: Sampras poetry in motion: Richard Williams hears the Wimbledon champion talk of his love of All England

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'IT'S the echo of the ball, the way it sounds in the stadium,' Pete Sampras said yesterday. He had just come off court at Queen's Club after his Stella Artois semi-final, but already he was looking to Wimbledon and trying to explain what it is that he loves about the place.

There is more to it than just the fact that he won there last year. And for a moment, it was like listening to Mike Tyson talking about boxing history. A practitioner of the harsher modern arts reflecting with affection and sensitivity on the predecessors and the traditions he continues to revere.

'In my mind it's the grandaddy of them all,' Sampras observed, when asked what a year spent as Wimbledon champion had meant to him. 'It's like the Masters in golf.'

Well, he is an American, and still quite young. But there was a special note in his voice when he spoke of watching the 17-year-old Boris Becker win his first title when he himself was a mere 13. 'There's a lot of history when you just walk into the place,' he continued. 'The Lavers and the Rosewalls, in their day they played three of their Grand Slam tournaments on grass. Wimbledon is the only one left.'

For all his youth and his stooped, shambling, bow-legged gait, you do not have to look very far to see the poetry in Pete Sampras's soul. Anyone who says it is not there in his tennis ought to go out and buy a pair of spectacles. Sampras plays tennis like Laver, his idol, did, with the maximum of application and the minimum of fuss. He may not command the grace-notes that decorated the repertoire of a McEnroe, but the clean lines and sudden ferocity of his game express their own kind of beauty.

Against Jan Apell in yesterday's semi-final, the world No 1 started so badly against the world No 127 that he found himself at 3-6 5-6 and advantage Apell, and serving to save the match. An Apell error and two whistling clean aces kept him alive, but a few minutes later he was looking at the wrong end of 2-5 in the tie-break. 'At that point, I don't like my chances,' he said later. 'I'd been a bit tentative. I came out there today as not the most

intense-looking player in the world, and the bottom line is that I was very lucky to come through. I was completely outplayed in the first set, and I got tentative on the volleys in the tiebreaker. Basically, it was in his hands to win. So I just told myself to go for it.'

Sampras was not surprised by the seriousness of Apell's challenge. 'I knew he'd beaten Goran (Ivanisevic), who's a great serve-and-volley player, so I was prepared for him to play well. He came out with no nerves, which is the right approach for the No 127 when he's playing the world No 1.

'Basically, he was kicking my butt. I hung in there, which is what you have to do on grass. I was a little sluggish at the beginning of the match, but in the end I came up with the big shots at the right time.'

Apell's finest moment came at 2-2 in the tiebreak, when he commanded the net and volleyed Sampras's drives with increasing force until he found the angle to put one away. Two unforced errors by the American on his own service took the underdog to 5-2, with two service points for the match. 'At that point,' Sampras said, 'he probably should have won.' But five points in a row did the job, including a magical disguised forehand across the server's body.

In the third set, Sampras's run of 13 points out of 14 between the fourth and seventh games tore the guts out of the Swede, who conceded his final service game and the match to a running forehand pass that must have put the Wimbledon champion in a good mood for today's final, and for the bigger challenge to come.

(Photograph omitted)