Tennis: Stich outmanoeuvres soporific Sampras: Men's world No 1 falls in the final of the ATP Tour Championship but his female counterpart secures Slims title

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IT HAS been a slow, hurtful process since Wimbledon '91, but Michael Stich is finally receiving the warmth he deserves from the German public. He wiped away a tear yesterday when the crowd at the Festhalle here acclaimed his triumph against Pete Sampras, the world No 1, to win the ATP Tour Championship.

Stich was jeered in this same ornate arena two years ago when he failed to win a set in three round- robin matches, one of them against Boris Becker. Now he has succeeded his idolised compatriot, who did not qualify to defend the title he won last year on his 25th birthday. A banner wishing greetings to 'Papi Becker' was the only reference to the expectant father when Stich moved to centre stage.

The German party may have only just begun. Stich, whose success elevated him to No 2 in the world, leads the nation in the Davis Cup final against Australia in Dusseldorf in a fortnight's time and then moves on to Munich to defend the Grand Slam Cup.

As happened when he played Sampras in the semi-finals of the Grand Slam Cup last year, Stich produced the decisive shots in tie-breaks, winning yesterday's final 7-6, 2-6, 7-6, 6-2 in two hours and 57 minutes.

Sampras, who has spent the past five weeks campaigning in Europe, was made to look weary by an opponent who has the ability to match his serving power - he delivered 27 aces - and was highly motivated by a desire to please the crowd.

The 22-year-old American, for whom Wimbledon and the United States Open were the high points of the season, found his sublime performance against the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev in Saturday's semi-finals - 6-3, 6-0 in 51 minutes, finishing with his 1,000th ace of the year - a hard act to follow.

Yesterday, the first set alone took more than an hour, with Sampras as soporific as he had been terrific. His serve was suspect from the start, enabling Stich to outmanoeuvre him in an 18-shot rally on the first point and break him in the opening game. The German continued to create opportunities, and Sampras was unable to launch a counter-offensive until the sixth game. Stich saved five break points and then cracked Sampras a second time to be serving for the set at 5-2.

Sampras suddenly came alive, saving two set points and winning the next four games. Stich, relieved when the tie-break arrived, regained the initiative. Sampras double-faulted (one of eight) on the first point and reacted with dismay over a line call which put him 1-4 down. The German won the shoot-out, 7-3.

'If I had won the first set 6-2, I don't know if Pete would have got back on to his feet,' Stich mused. Pete did, breaking immediately and romping through the second set in 35 minutes.

This made the spectators nervous, and this was transmitted to Stich during the second tie-break. The shoot-out was punctuated by nine mini-breaks, Stich producing the shot of the match, a spectacular backhand cross-court return at 5-5. Still Sampras was not finished, and at 7-7 the distracted German called for silence. He then composed himself and hit an emphatic forehand down the line for 9-7 on his third set point.

Stich has won 37 of 56 tie-breaks this year, five them in the past week. Goran Ivanisevic suffered in the semi-finals, losing 7-6, 7-6, the second shoot-out going to 10-8. 'I think everybody tends to play a bit loose on the first couple of points in a breaker,' he said. 'I try to play every point very seriously and be 100 per cent there on the first point. That pays off. We both had our chances, and I took mine. After that I think Pete was a bit frustrated; maybe a bit tired, too.'

This was clearly the case in the fourth set, which was completed in 31 minutes. Sampras lost his first two service games, and Stich then took a trip to the bathroom before finishing the job, appropriately with an ace on match point.

The American was not entirely excluded from the celebrations. After Stich received the trophy and a cheque for dollars 1.24m (pounds 885,000), Sampras collected dollars 610,000 and - far more important - the piece of crystal inscribed 'No 1'. 'It was disappointing for me today,' he said, 'but I had a great year and can hold my head up high.'