Tennis: Sampras shrugs off sickness to eclipse Agassi: Lipton Championships

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ANDRE AGASSI has made impressive progress in his comeback, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg numbering among his victims. But the flamboyant Las Vegan has not yet reached the point where he is able to beat Pete Sampras, even on an occasion when the world No 1 had to overcome sickness and dehydration.

The Wimbledon champion almost failed to defend his Lipton title here yesterday. He was placed on an intravenous drip and would have faced disqualification from the final had Agassi not agreed to grant him an hour's grace when he was unable to walk on court at the appointed time. Sampras repaid his opponent by winning, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3, in two hours and 14 minutes.

'It was really not difficult to make the decision,' Agassi told a capacity crowd afterwards. 'If I can't beat the best player in the world, I don't deserve to take home the trophy. And I certainly don't when I can't beat him when he's sick.'

It was their first meeting since Sampras's five-set victory in the Wimbledon quarter-finals last summer, which levelled the head-to- head series 4-4, and the majority of spectators were willing Agassi to succeed.

Sampras blamed a meal of pasta and tomato the previous evening for his condition and said he was as surprised as everybody else that he had won. He need not be, for after looking seedy and understandably tentative at the start, he played the better tennis.

From the start he was able to test Agassi's greatest strength, the return of serve, with deliveries timed at up to 125mph, and some of his angled drives were breathtaking.

Though losing his serve three times when the opening set was in his grasp, and double-faulting on set point, Sampras immediately overcame the disappointment. He broke Agassi in the first game of the second set, and cracked him again on his fourth set point in the 10th to level the match.

An astute lob created a break point for Sampras in the second game of the final set, and Agassi contributed to his downfall by missing the ball when going for a smash. Sampras never lost control from that point.

He delivered three consecutive aces to reach match point in the final game. Agassi briefly interrupted the flow, returning a second serve, and Sampras then climaxed the contest with another ace, his 14th overall.

There was a note of encouragement for the women's game before the tournament ended. Jennifer Capriati plans to make a comeback as early as June. While this could be an unexpected bonus, considering the sport lacks players capable of providing a serious challenge to Steffi Graf, judgment on the wisdom of the decision had best be reserved.

Stefano Capriati, the American teenager's father, saw Graf drop a set for the first time in 28 matches before recovering to defeat Natalia Zvereva, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, in the women's final here on Saturday.

Afterwards, he said: 'Jennifer will definitely play again in June, possibly in time for the French Open, and maybe at Wimbledon. She finished her examinations yesterday and has been practising for two weeks.'

He hedged about Wimbledon, pondering, perhaps, whether his daughter is quite ready for the attendant publicity. 'We have spent a lot of time tearing up English newspaper stories and putting them in the garbage,' he said.

The Olympic champion, who turns 18 a week tomorrow, has won dollars 1.5m ( pounds 1.03m) in prize-money and earned millions more from endorsements. She has not played since losing to Leila Meskhi, the Georgian, in the first round of the United States Open last September.

Capriati had become disaffected with tennis, and her year ended with the embarrassment of being cautioned for shoplifting in a Florida jewellery store. It was decided in January that she would return to school and try to introduce a semblance of normality to her life.

This caused speculation that she was another example of the tennis stress syndrome known as 'burn- out', and prompted a review of the minimum age for the women's tour, currently 14.

Four years have elapsed since Capriati made her professional debut at Boca Raton, Florida, having been given special dispensation by the Women's Tennis Association to compete 23 days before her 14th birthday.

An age eligibility commission, comprising an independent panel of specialists in health care and psychology, was organised by the Women's Tennis Council and the International Tennis Federation. The commission is scheduled to hold a 'consensus meeting' during Wimbledon. Conclusions will be discussed during the United States Open in September, after which a decision is due to be made.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 35