Tennis: Smooth Sampras down to business

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The Independent Online
IT is difficult for Pete Sampras to keep the French Open out of his mind. Even on the journey from Qatar en route to winning the Australian championship he crossed expanses of red earth, conjuring images of the slow clay courts of Paris which stand between the world No 1 and a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title.

By defeating his compatriot Todd Martin in straight sets on the rubberised concrete of Flinders Park here yesterday, Sampras became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win three successive Grand Slam titles, adding the Australian to last year's triumphs at Wimbledon and the United States Open.

The 22-year-old American knows that if he is to emulate his hero to the extent he desires he will have to conquer the attacking player's inherent aversion to clay, a surface which deadens the serve and favours the counter-punchers.

Sampras appears to be getting there. No longer the tyro who 'just got hot for two weeks' to win the US Open in 1990, he is prepared to stay back and trade groundstrokes in order to create openings. The 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory against Martin featured a number of comparatively lengthy points, Sampras paying particular respect to his opponent's returning of second serves.

Martin's prospects of causing a sensation in his first Grand Slam final diminished after the opening set. The ninth seed was unable to convert any of six break points en route to the tie-break, and then failed to assert himself in the shoot-out, in contrast to the way he did twice to defeat Stefan Edberg in the semi-finals.

Sampras won the tie-break, 7-4, and was leading 4-1 in the second set when Martin had his first success, capitalising on two double-faults to break. The match was about to fade away when the underdog made one last contribution to the tournament.

Attendants holding the winner's and loser's cheques, worth the equivalent of pounds 200,000 and pounds 100,000 respectively, could be glimpsed at the entrance to the court as Sampras was about to serve for the championship, at 5-2 in the third set. He double-faulted on the first point, and Martin made him pay for further lapses of concentration to break for 5-3 and then hold for 5-4.

'I was disappointed with myself that I didn't close him at 5-2,' Sampras said. 'It was careless tennis. I was thinking about winning the Australian Open, and what a great achievement, looking ahead and just kind of taking it for granted instead of taking it point by point. I was definitely very concerned. I didn't want to get back to 5-5, and the crowd started getting into it. I didn't want to have that momentum switch.'

Though Martin won the first point of the final game, aces No 12 and No 13 put Sampras back on track to finish the job after two hours and 33 minutes, ending the tournament in a businesslike rather than spectacular manner.

No sooner had Sampras made his victory speech than his thoughts began to be lured away to Paris, where he has advanced to the quarter-finals for the past two years, losing to Andre Agassi, in straight sets, and to Sergi Bruguera, the eventual champion, in four.

Tim Gullikson, Sampras's coach, expressed confidence that the French would be won, but was not prepared to put a date on it. 'Pete has a wide range of options in his game,' Gullikson said, 'more than Connors, McEnroe or Courier. He has the ability to make great players look totally ordinary, and they know it.'

Sampras was more circumspect. 'I still feel I'm a bit behind the Couriers and Brugueras on the clay,' he said. 'I still feel I need a little bit more time to mature and to get more exprience. I am getting better, but it is definitely going to be a huge challenge for my game on that surface.

'I have to be a bit more concerned about shot selection, and being a bit more patient, and accepting the fact that my serve will come back on the clay, because every time I step out on the clay I feel like it's a struggle. Hopefully, one year I'll just get lucky.'

The good fortune Sampras requires would be in the draw, where he could be doomed if a cluster of clay-court specialists are ranged against him, and in the weather. Damp conditions, slowing the courts further, would militate against him. He also needs to adjust his footwork to a surface on which sliding movements can work to advantage. The rest is a question of mind over matter.

Britain's Jamie Delgado and his Slovakian partner, Roman Kukal, were defeated in the boys' doubles final by the Australians, Ben Ellwood and Mark Philippoussis, 7-5, 7-6.

(Photograph omitted)