Tennis: Sapsford savours his exit

British underdog retires after enjoyable farewell as Sampras shows his authority
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The Independent Online
THE END came for Danny Sapsford at 3.46pm yesterday. The match with Pete Sampras was over and so was the Briton's career.

There could be no tears though because this was perhaps the greatest tennis day of the Surrey man's life. Sapsford may not have gone out at the top, but he did so against the tops. He was not shamed on No 1 court and when the 30-year-old left following a 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 defeat it was to the grandest ovation of his life. The last memory will be the best.

It was at least as much as Sapsford could have expected because, officially at least, he is the worst player Sampras has faced for some time. These two may have been close to each other in the players' alphabetical listings, but otherwise there was no proximity.

The tale of the net cord made startling reading. Sampras, the world No1 for the last six years, was facing a man ranked 595. He has won 57 titles to his opponent's zero, 11 Grand Slams to another zero. Sapsford has won only five Grand Slam matches. He had the look of the sort of opponent Mickey Duff used to line up for Frank Bruno.

Since turning professional in 1989 Sapsford has won just 18 matches in ATP tour and Grand Slam events, but at least he saved the best to the end. The man who first played here in 1990 had needed wild cards to get into his previous six championships. This year he was forced to pre-qualify and yesterday's match, his first ever in the third round, was his ninth in the tournament.

Sapsford has reached this late zenith on a revised system of preparation. That is no preparation at all apart from a spot of gardening. The 30-year- old may struggle to explain this past week to pupils when he soon embarks on a coaching career. "Put down that racket straight away and pick up a trowel," could be the advice.

Sapsford had played two unsuccessful doubles matches on Thursday which was not ideal considering the task ahead. The best place to prepare for Sampras is in the chapel.

The champion himself had pinpointed overconfidence as his principal enemy and was never really at his flowing best from the moment he emerged on to court with a huge, dark bag over his shoulder. Sapsford tried to fool the uninformed that he was the American involved by turning up, and playing, in a baseball cap.

He lost the toss and it proved a bad toss to lose. Sampras elected to serve and started the match with an ace down the middle. This could later be identified as the turning point. There were further aces, 21 of them, all over the place, but the American was never truly convincing. Certainly he did not seem keen to use up too many calories. Perhaps it was pity. When Sapsford walked out to serve for the first time Sampras was already out on court banging the strings of his racket. Even he appeared to be applauding the plucky Brit.

Sampras proved incapable of returning the first delivery and the crowd went bonkers. They did not know how plentiful the chances to applaud would be.

The No1 seed recognised he would have a bad match somewhere in the tournament and he may now be grateful it came yesterday. He must get no sloppier than this. Sapsford looked by far the happier of the two even though the sands were running out on a professional playing life. There was no humiliating rout, no embarrassment, even if he never even managed a break point on the Sampras serve. Danny's problem yesterday, as it always had been, is that he has no big shot. Even David was sent out with a sling.

"Danny came out with nothing to lose and I knew he was going to have a lot of crowd support, come out swinging away and I thought he held his own very well," Sampras said. "You don't qualify and win two matches by not doing the right things. But I felt like I was in control of the match.

"It wasn't easy playing Danny but I haven't felt threatened in any of my matches, and I played this pretty well."

A single break was enough for the first set, and it was a similar story in the second. Then, just when Sapsford was about to complete the lulling procedure, he dropped serve at 5-5 in the third. Sampras served out for victory in one hour and 43 minutes.

Sapsford left with a pay-off of pounds 18,420, which is not inconsiderable when you realise he had previously earned just pounds 1,013 in total this season. He joins the Lawn Tennis Association's coaching staff in two weeks' time and will nurture a group of juniors. Standing by a basket of balls and shouting "focus" should be less physically demanding than his old job.

Danny Sapsford can go home now and try to get his lawn up to the standard of the one he trod yesterday. He can take all the time he wants to smell the roses.

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