Tennis: Sapsford secures tie with Sampras

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The Independent Online
DANNY SAPSFORD'S spirits, like all husbands, must have dropped yesterday when he saw the grandstand attached to court 13, the venue for his second-round match with Galo Blanco.

This is a construction topped by a green and white canopy, an edifice of bars, nuts and bolts awfully reminiscent of the parts which arrive at suburban homes in flat-pack boxes. The instructions that came with it almost certainly said the job could be accomplished within an hour.

It took rather longer than that for the Surrey man to complete his business yesterday, but at least he delayed the moment when he will be asked to erect either a climbing frame or gazebo in his back garden. Sapsford, who retires from competitive tennis after Wimbledon, won 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 in two hours and 34 minutes.

It will be Sapsford's first appearance in the third round and, should he win his next game, he may go all the way as he will have removed Pete Sampras from the top half of the draw. Our man, the world No 595, appeared to recognise he was heavily up against it. "A few years ago the odds of a British player winning Wimbledon were 1,500-1, about the same as the bookmakers had for the second coming of Christ," Sapsford said. "They had a couple of bets for that but nothing for Wimbledon and I think I should be similar odds now. Sampras is in a class of his own, especially at Wimbledon, so I'm just going out there to enjoy it."

While others have been honing themselves to physical and mental peaks for Wimbledon '99, Danny hasn't. He's been pottering around the garden. The decision to become an Lawn Tennis Association coach and devote more time to his wife and daughter has been taken. It has been an uplifting prospect.

Shorn of the pressure of expectation, Sapsford sailed through qualification at Roehampton. Along the way he beat Petr Korda, a result which so shocked the Czech that he retired from the sport on the spot. There has been no hard training from Sapsford recently, just results and morning aches. His final hit on Tuesday night was with the girls of the Surrey under- 18 squad.

Sapsford is retiring because he is tired. He does not possess big shots and has spent his career retrieving and attempting to wear down the opposition. He has been running all his life and now he's had enough.

The 30-year-old knew yesterday there was to be more punishment as he was up against Blanco, a clay court specialist who would be trading almost exclusively from the back of the court. The Spaniard came to battle looking like a young Sting.

Sapsford was soon throwing himself to the ground like a pig chasing truffles as he tried to extend his career by just one more game. Blanco was a stubborn figure on the other side of the net, but it gradually emerged that the Briton's biggest challenge would be from the enemy within. The old (by tennis standards) muscles were beginning to rebel. "I was getting cramp in my legs and I was thinking I was going to have to pull out but it never got that bad," he said. "It actually helped me in a way because I couldn't hit two serves every point so I took a lot off my first serve and it paid off."

The spasms returned when Sapsford attempted to remove his shoes and socks in the locker room. He came for interview doing a passable impression of his grandfather. There will, however, be no late resort to a fitness programme. "It seems crazy to change a winning formula," he said. "I have to try and get my body back in shape. My game revolves around movement so if I can move well I'll have a good time [against Sampras]."

Part one of the Jeux Sans Frontieres between Britain and the continent on Court 13 had begun with a women's second- round encounter between Devon's Karen Cross and Kim Clijsters of Belgium, like Sapsford a Roehampton qualifier.

Cross turned up for the sports in Nike gear comprising a sleeveless shirt with stripes down the sides and a matching skirt. And so did Clijsters. It was the cocktail party nightmare. They had come in the same outfit. Despite this sartorial twinning the two could be easily distinguished. One was left- handed with a pony tail and scurried a lot. The other was right-handed with buns in her hair and won most of the points. Cross got the runaround.

Clijsters is the youngest player in the draw, but while the calendar might tell us she was 16 just over two weeks ago, she would struggle to get half fare on the buses. The teenager is solid, powerful and athletic, which is no surprise when you consider her chromosomes.

Papa Clijsters is Leo, the former Belgian international sweeper, World Cup veteran and European Cup Winners' Cup winner with FC Mechelen. Clijsters snr is not among tennis's legions of pushy pops, but he does keep guard during press interviews. And he claps solemnly in the stands when his daughter wins points. He got a lot of practice yesterday.

Cross was, in fact, the higher ranked of the two, but that statistic will not remain for much longer. After 50 one-sided minutes she found herself on the wrong end of a 6-2, 6-0 scoreline. With Louise Latimer, the only other surviving home woman, going out later in the day, it was the final journey for Britain's Thelma and Louise.

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