Tennis / Wimbledon '92: Becker on the edge as outsiders take over - Sitich and Edberg, kings of Centre Court for the past two years, succumb to the power of the pretenders to the throne

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MICHAEL STICH and Stefan Edberg, the Wimbledon men's singles champions of the past two years, disappeared in the twinkle of a server's arm yesterday, leaving Boris Becker, the winner in 1989, on the brink.

The horses-for-courses theory was severely tested, though it could be argued that the successful outsiders, Pete Sampras, who whipped Stich, and Goran Ivanisevic, who overpowered Edberg, simply needed to convince themselves that they were on the right track. One of them will play in the final.

Sunday's opponent remains any one from four. When rain stopped play in the quarter-finals last evening, Andre Agassi led Becker

4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 3-4, though the German was a break to the good in the fourth set; and the unseeded John McEnroe stood at 6-2, 5-5 against Guy Forget. These matches are due to resume at noon today, with the women's semi-finals scheduled to start on the Centre Court, not before 1pm.

Most judges - including the ones who matter - studied Sampras's credentials at the outset, and concluded that he had the style but would not get the trip. The seeding committee, weighing one win in four Wimbledon matches against a 1991 grass-court title in Manchester, decided that here was a logical case for demotion.

Ranked No 3 in the world, the American was dropped two places to fifth in the seedings, behind Jim Courier, Edberg, Stich and Becker. The bookies also viewed the 20-year-old American with scepticism. He started at 14-1, and was still on offer at 10-1 before stepping on court yesterday.

Sampras responded by eliminating the defending champion in an hour and 27 minutes, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, his performance providing a timely reminder of how he raised his game against Ivan Lendl, McEnroe and Agassi to win the United States Open two years ago.

Ivanisevic, the eighth seed, the narrow loser of a semi-final

against Becker in 1990, won 6-7,

7-5, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 yesterday. Sampras and Ivanisevic have each won two of their previous four matches, none of which has been in a Grand Slam championship. Their only encounter on grass resulted in Ivanisevic relieving Sampras of his Manchester title, 6-4,

6-4, before going on to lose to Britain's Nick Brown in the second round at Wimbledon.

Stich trudged the court with a hang-dog demeanour from the moment he double-faulted to lose his serve in the second game. He moaned about line-calls and twice called the referee, Alan Mills, to the court to complain about the slippery surface. Players had sweated throughout the opening week; now it was the turn of the courts.

'He (Mills) said I was the only guy who was slipping; Pete wasn't,' the German said. 'So that was the reason why he said he couldn't stop the play. I said if that's his opinion, that it's not enough that one guy gets hurt, maybe that it has to be two guys, then it's OK.'

Not that Stich used this as an excuse. He could not have praised his opponent more highly than to say: 'I think he played his best match ever on grass. He just killed me.'

Nor did the German consider that his status had been hammered into the ground. 'I'm not a Wimbledon champion for one year,' he said. 'I see it in a different way. I'm the Wimbledon champion of '91, and that's what I'm going to be the rest of my life.'

Past experience told Sampras that he would have to tighten his defence if he was to reap the full benefit of a smooth serve and punchy volley. 'You would think grass would be a good surface for me,' he said, 'but the last couple of years my return of serve kept me back from doing well. I have pretty long, gangly strokes, and I took the week off before this tournament to work on shortening them up. That is what it comes down to: the return of serve and the serve.'

This was certainly true of many of the points in Ivanisevic's match against Edberg on Court One, though the excitement of the contest, building from a 12-10 tie- break in the Swede's favour, thrilled the spectators.

As on the Centre Court, the officials were called to inspect the surface, and before the start of the second set a member of the groundstaff - who could have passed for a ghostbuster - removed moisture from a baseline with the world's largest hair-dryer.

The climax of the match provided splendid entertainment. Ivanisevic, wearing a protective support to counter a pain in his side, conjured a shot from behind his back during the sixth game of the final set. Edberg could cope with that, but the three net-cords in the Croat's favour when he broke for 5-3 were harder to take. 'He had a little luck; that's what he needed,' the Swede said.

Over on the Centre Court, where Agassi was leading 2-0 in the second set, the players were distracted by the noise from the party next door. Becker put his racket down and complained to the umpire that he was unable to concentrate. Agassi also dropped his racket and said: 'Sounds like a great match, should we go and watch?'

The German probably wished he could. Agassi, quickly settling into a rhythm of solid serves and mighty returns, seem untroubled by Becker's power and reputation, showing why he had won their previous five matches.

It will be fascinating to see how the match goes now the players have had time to sleep on it. Becker will have to reproduce the astonishing form of the final set he played to defeat Wayne Ferreira after an overnight rest. At the same time, it is worth recalling that Agassi led a compatriot, David Wheaton, by two sets to one before losing in the quarter-finals last year.

Before the skies opened, the residents of Court One were treated to McEnroe's volleys; one of them directed, with reasonable restraint, at the umpire, George Grime, who overruled a beep by the New Yorker's old friend Cyclops, the service line machine. This meant that Forget had aced him to take a 3-2 lead in the second set.

McEnroe called for a second opinion, and Ken Farrar, the Grand Slam supervisor, arrived, accompanied by Tony Gathercole, the assistant referee. It was agreed, as a compromise, that the machine would be switched off. Grime, Gathercole, Cyclops - where was Jeremy Beadle?

Results, order of play, page 39