Tennis / Wimbledon '93: Sampras confronts the Vegas showman: Trevor Haylett on today's men's quarter-finals

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The Independent Online
JUST TO make Pete Sampras feel even more alone on Centre Court this afternoon, it is now a fact of official record that Andre Agassi is the most popular sporting star among British fans. More loved by women, the kids and some of the men than even Frank Bruno, Nigel Mansell, Linford Christie or Will Carling. Gazza eat your heart out.

Sampras versus Agassi in the first of today's Wimbledon quarter-finals is the all-American dream collision for those who trade in the business of promotion. Agassi, 23, is the undisputed good guy, the court charmer; Sampras, 21, the bad guy, an unlikely role for which he has been preparing with his outburst against the home supporters rooting for Britain's Andrew Foster on Monday.

As it happens, this particular match needs no hyping up. It has all the ingredients: a delicious contrast in style and character. Agassi is the Las Vegas showman, unleashing his array of shots like some kind of cannon fire from the baseline. Sampras, dark and dour, has a delightful touch and flair on court, but possesses the personality of a brick wall.

Neither is there any love lost between them. Not since the French Open, where Agassi questioned his rival's right to be taken seriously as the No 1 player in the world when he looks like 'he should be swinging from the trees'.

Sampras has refused to respond publicly to the ape-like allusion, and says he was happy to accept Agassi's apology. However, his opportunity for revenge will never be more apposite than today. Sampras may be No 1, but Agassi has the No 1 title.

They have met seven times before, with Agassi ahead by four victories to three. Yet this is their first face-off on grass, and on Wimbledon grass something extraordinary appears to take over the older man and elevate him into the sphere of Superman with a racket.

So spectacular has been his form so far this fortnight that the worries over his injured wrist no longer are a matter of concern, whereas Sampras needed treatment on court on Monday for the problem with his right shoulder, which seems certain to come under the severest pressure today as the ever- ripening courts play more and more into Agassi's hands.

Their previous matches had not been without significance. In 1990, on a carpet surface in Philadelphia, Sampras's success so impressed Fred Perry and Donald Budge, the first to achieve the Grand Slam of all four major titles in the calendar year, that they marked the 18- year-old down as a certain Wimbledon champion of the future.

In the final of the US Open later that year, Sampras, who in succession had swept away Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe before disposing of Agassi, can hardly have played any better, angling his serves on to the lines beyond the reach of even this great returner of serves.

It is going to be some match, one that even McEnroe finds difficult to call. Earlier, he had been championing Sampras's claims of a possible victory come Sunday teatime. Now the quality of Agassi, the inspiration he draws from the British crowds, veers him back towards the man who often seeks him out for help, guidance, or sheer friendship.

'Andre has the greatest service return I've ever seen,' McEnroe said, 'and I say that with the greatest of respect to Jimmy Connors.'

If their match is the pick of today's action, Boris Becker versus Michael Stich, a clash between the two powerful Germans and a re-run of the 1991 final, is not far behind. Another all-American affair brings Jim Courier up against the unseeded Todd Martin, while Stefan Edberg should have few problems with the Frenchman, Cedric Pioline, who is playing only his third Wimbledon and has reached a Grand Slam quarter-final for the first time.

----------------------------------------------------------------- AGASSI v SAMPRAS HEAD-TO-HEAD ----------------------------------------------------------------- Year Venue Surface Round Winner Score 1989 Rome clay last 32 Agassi 6-2 6-1 1990 Philadelphia carpet last 16 Sampras 5-7 7-5 ret 1990 US Open concrete F Sampras 6-4 6-3 6-2 1990 ATP finals carpet round robin Agassi 6-4 6-2 1991 ATP finals carpet round robin Sampras 6-3 1-6 6-3 1992 Atlanta clay F Agassi 7-5 6-4 1992 French Open clay QF Agassi 7-6 6-2 6-1 -----------------------------------------------------------------