Tennis: Wimbledon '93 / Pray silence for America's day: Pete Sampras and Jim Courier can quietly provide a classic in today's men's final, writes Guy Hodgson

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The Independent Online
OLD MEN'S minds can be vague but it is unlikely that Pete Sampras will have many encouraging noises heading in his direction from the the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, this afternoon. Then again at least one reporter will not be weeping too mightily into his notepad if Jim Courier fails to land the Wimbledon men's singles title.

Quite how two men who allegedly have the outgoing natures of blotting paper have managed to become the pantomime villains of the All England Club is only marginally more staggering than their joint appearance in a final itself. But Gentleman Pete and Boring Jim, both supposedly suspect on grass, have blotted their copy books this fortnight almost as easily as they have swatted their opponents. McEnroe and Connors hardly ever caused as much verbal mayhem even in their brattish pomp.

Sampras, only the 11th player to be world No 1 since the ranking system was instigated in 1973, began the downward motion of his near-pristine reputation by bellowing at courtside Chelsea Pensioners for rustling sweet papers and then aided the momentum by shouting at an extravagantly pro- British crowd what he says was 'hasta la vista'. Funny how the acoustics on Court 14 made it sound altogether less savoury.

Courier, meanwhile, would have been thrown out of the tournament altogether had the referee, Alan Mills, ruled that a stream of 'hasta la vistas' had not been directed at an umpire last Saturday. He escaped then with a fine but could not slip the clutches of the media after Friday's semi- final when he invited a non-tabloid journalist for a 'one-to-one interview', which by implication was likely to be more than just a trade of words.

If this recalls the days when Mac the mouth was as adept with four-letter words as he was with his forehand then rest assured the Americans too will be wallowing in nostalgia today. To have two of their countrymen contesting tennis's principal title for the first time since 1984 would have had transaltantic tear-ducts filling sentimentally anyway but for the meeting to fall on Independence Day is justification for full-blown Stars and Stripes sobbing. Even if the accompanying noise hitherto has been red and white perhaps and uncontestably blue.

The spotlight has fallen with perfect timing on the Americans and they are anxious to play down the controversial nature of their journey. 'Sometimes things slip out in the heat of the moment,' Courier said. 'Everybody has their moments when they get a little upset. So hopefully I won't read about what a bad sport I am.' Sampras added: 'I hope they (the Centre Court crowd) still consider me a pretty nice guy. It was a situation blown out of proportion.'

Perhaps, but the alleged vulnerability of the world's two best players on Wimbledon's lawns has certainly been exaggerated. Sampras, 21, was pinpointed as a future Wimbledon champion by Fred Perry three years ago but this estimation seemed likely to be undermined by a comparatively weak return of serve. Courier, with the best record in Grand Slam tournaments over the last two years, is still uncomfortable on grass and even he says he is surprised to have ventured so far. It is a final few would have predicted, even taking their ranking into account.

The doubts about Sampras began before a ball was hit. He has a shoulder injury that he believed would force him out of Wimbledon and which has recurred in every match, notably when he is under pressure. He is taking pills to combat the pain although he himself admits some of the trouble might be psychosomatic.

His mind has been a bone of contention since he made one of the less wise comments in tennis history by saying losing the status of US Open champion he had acquired in 1990 had taken 'a monkey off my back'. Winners do not normally make remarks like that and, despite his elevated status he has failed to win a Grand Slam tournament since. The closest came last September when he reached the final of the US Open and was beaten by Stefan Edberg in four sets.

His posture, slumped shoulders in the Chris Waddle mould, does not help but the suspicion is that he can get dispirited a shade too easily. Particularly at Wimbledon where his natural serve-and-volley game managed only one victory in four matches until he reached the semi-finals last year. 'Grass is the toughest surface for me,' he said two years ago. 'You only get so many chances and if you don't convert the other guy will. A match can go up and down in a couple of minutes.'

He is now converting partly because his coach, Tim Gullikson, has worked on his groundstrokes. 'He's had a big impact,' Sampras concedes. 'He was a very good grass court player and one of the reasons I hired him was to improve on a surface where I struggled. It had a lot to do with my swings. I had long, gangly strokes and on grass you can't afford that. You only have time for a short swing.'

It is Sampras's serve that has stood out at Wimbledon, however. When he won the US Open he delivered 100 aces and it has been the dominant stroke so far at Wimbledon. 'Sometimes I thought he didn't know the difference between his first and second serve,' his semi-final opponent, Boris Becker, said. 'He was really hitting them so hard.' Sampras says he is putting more spin on the ball and that is giving him more margin for error; against Becker he won 60 per cent of his second-serve points, a phenomenal return from a stroke opponents usually hope to prey on.

Courier, who has won only two of his nine meeetings with today's opponent, also says Sampras's serve will be the key to the final. Against Edberg in the semi-final he struggled for an hour to unpick the Swede's serve and was 6-4, 2-0 down. Once the combination had been revealed, however, he accrued 18 of the next 24 games.

'If Pete serves a high percentage of first serves it's going to be difficult for me,' Courier said. 'I'd hope to have chances at some stage and I'll need to capitalise on them. His serve is very, very big. There'll be no time for me to breathe and relax, I'll have to be intense the whole match.'

Courier is no slouch in the serving department either but it is the return, particularly on the forehand, that is his forte. On clay or concrete the sureness of the bounce enables the 22-year-old Floridian to throw his 12 stone plus into his strokes generating colossal power. On grass, however, the low and sometimes suspect reaction of ball on turf has caused him to hold back in the past.

This year the baked Centre Court is taking on the characteristics of concrete and Courier, the winner of four Grand Slam titles since the 1991 French Open, is reaping the benefit. 'Before the tournament started I thought I'd be getting a lot of golf time in this fortnight,' he said. 'It's a surprise to me that I've gone so far. The weather has certainly been playing to the favour of someone like myself who prefers the ball higher. The courts are bouncing much higher than if we had a rainy fortnight.'

Agassi confounded conventional wisdom by winning from the baseline last year, as Courier will have to do to prevail today. It is the back-court basher against the most elegant player in men's tennis and the serve and volleyer should win. But Goran Ivanisevic should have done so 12 months ago. 'Stranger things have happened, I guess,' Courier said.

In a fortnight when two introverts have noisily and inelegantly entered the greater consciousness, they certainly have.

PETE SAMPRAS Age: 21 Seeded: No 1 Career prize money: dollars 7.89m ( pounds 5.4m) Singles titles: 17 (one Grand Slam) Coach: Tim Gullikson Route to final: bt N Borwick (Aus) 6-7 6-3 7-6 6-3; bt J Morgan (Aus) 6-4 7-6 6-4; bt B Black (Zim) 6-4 6-1 6-1; bt A Foster (GB) 6-1 6-2 7-6; bt A Agassi (US) 6-2 6-2 3-6 3-6 6-4; bt B Becker (Ger) 7-6 6-4 6-4

------------------------------------------------------------------------ HEAD TO HEAD ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Year Venue Surface Round Winner Score 1988 Scottsdale hard 2nd Sampras 6-3 6-1 1991 Cincinnati hard SF Sampras 6-2 7-5 1991 Indianapolis hard SF Sampras 6-3 7-6 1991 US Open hard QF Courier 6-2 7-6 7-6 1991 ATP Finals carpet F Sampras 3-6 7-6 6-3 6-4 1992 Indianapolis hard F Sampras 6-4 6-4 1992 US Open hard SF Sampras 6-1 3-6 6-2 6-2 1992 ATP Finals carpet SF Courier 7-6 7-6 1993 Hong Kong hard F Sampras 6-3 6-7 7-6 ------------------------------------------------------------------------

JIM COURIER Age: 22 Seeded: No 3 Career prize money: dollars 6.16m ( pounds 4.2m) Singles titles: 13 (four Grand Slams) Coaches: Jose Higueras, Brad Stine Route to final: bt G Pozzi (It) 6-0 7-5 6-4; bt R Agenor (Hai) 7-5 6-1 7-6; bt J Stoltenberg (Aus) 6-4 7-6 3-6 6-4; bt W Ferreira (SA) 4-6 7-6 7-5 6-4; bt T Martin (US) 6-2 7-6 6-3; bt S Edberg (Swe) 4-6 6-4 6-2 6-4

(Photograph omitted)