Tennis / Wimbledon '93: Unbroken Becker shows the spirit of a champion: Stich's attacks repelled by his German compatriot as the Agassi illuminations are extinguished by steadiness of Sampras under fire

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BORIS BECKER and Michael Stich deny that they are given to feuding, but the rivalry between the Germans almost scorched the Centre Court at Wimbledon last evening. Becker avenged his straight-sets defeat by Stich in the 1991 final by edging a thrilling contest, 7-5, 6-7,

6-7, 6-2, 6-4. Stich was unable to crack the Becker serve in four and a quarter hours of trying; nor could he break his spirit.

After congratulating the victor on reaching the semi-finals, Stich left the arena without waiting for the three- times champion to accompany him. 'I walked off because I wanted to leave the court to Boris,' Stich said. 'He deserved it.' Becker was more than content to be alone, savouring the roar of the crowd.

The final game of the contest encapsulated the drama which had built steadily from an inauspicious start. Stich held a break point to level at 5-5 after Becker had unnerved his supporters by double-faulting.

Having kept Stich at bay in 26 previous service games, Becker was not inclined to fold now. He salvaged the situation, and then failed to convert his first match point. Stich then hurt his racket hand making a forlorn dive to intercept a Becker cross-court backhand, and Becker took advantage of his third match point, hitting an unreturnable serve.

'That was one of the best matches I've ever played at Wimbledon, as well as one of the longest,' Becker said. 'I'm not a man who was seeking revenge - that's for people who hate, and I don't hate. But it was probably my best result of the year so far.

'Today we had two Germans and two Americans playing on the Centre Court. We started at 1pm and we finished at 8.30pm, so tennis is at a very good moment just now.'

Stich acknowledged his opponent's superiority on the day. 'Boris played the big points well,' he said. 'I had my chances, but I didn't take them. He was on a run in the fourth set. Everything he tried came off.'

Many observers predicted that the winner of the German duel would advance to lift the trophy, and Becker, who lost to Stich at London's Queen's Club a month ago, has rebuilt his form and confidence impressively during his past five matches on the lawns he regards as his own.

In tomorrow's semi-finals, the fourth-seeded Becker will play one of the aforementioned Americans, Pete Sampras, the top seed. The other semi-final also pits Europe against America, Sweden's Stefan Edberg facing Jim Courier, of Florida. It will be the first time Edberg has played another seed, and the No 2 will be tested by the No 3. It is also the first time since 1927 that the top four seeds have reached the semi-finals.

Sampras demonstrated that one does not have to swing out of a tree to drop coconuts on somebody's head. The somebody was Andre Agassi, who paid with his Wimbledon title for gratuitously insulting the world No 1 in Paris recently.

Agassi, to be fair, had apologised for his remarks, and he warmly congratulated his fellow American after losing an exciting quarter-final in five sets. Nor can the flamboyant Las Vegan's contribution - to the match and to the entire championships - be underestimated.

From the moment he declared his damaged wrist fit for action to his final wave to the crowd on taking his leave of the Centre Court yesterday afternoon, Agassi illuminated the scene. He confounded the sceptics, your correspondent among them, by advancing beyond the opening round in his first competitive match for two months before falling to the top seed yesterday, 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4.

Agassi's recovery from the shock of the two-set deficit reassured his supporters, who had begun to fear that he would revert to a former habit of capitulating under fire. Only an hour had elapsed, and yet Sampras, who declined to offer Agassi the pace he feeds on, appeared to be on the point of saying another 'Thank you very much, and God bless you'.

The match was becoming something of an embarrassment for Agassi's friend Barbra Streisand, who was making her debut in the competitors' guest box: Hello, Dolly; Goodbye, Dolly.

Two factors conspired to enliven the proceedings. Agassi's pride coaxed him to impose himself on the match before it was too late, and when he broke Sampras for 2-0 in the third set the Californian began to fret about his shoulder injury.

There was a similar occurrence when Sampras played Britain's Andrew Foster in the previous round, and the American acknowledges that the problem could be partly psychosomatic. 'When I got my serve broken I started thinking about my arm,' he said, 'and when that happened it was uncomfortable. I started kind of sloping around, my head was hanging a bit.'

Life in the opposing camp had improved considerably. After Agassi broke serve again at the start of the fourth set, Streisand, who was dressed like the captain of the Good Ship Lollipop, almost went overboard.

By now, Sampras was applying embrocation to the shoulder at every change-over. His serves were losing power and trajectory, and Agassi's returns were starting to hurt. Agassi levelled the match with another service break, ensuring that he would deliver the opening shots in the final set.

Sampras was determined that the pain would not keep him from the semi-finals. 'I just told myself to hang in there,' he said. He did better than that, creating two break points in the opening game and converting one in the third game. Agassi helped by double-faulting and then directing a backhand beyond the baseline.

It was then that the trainer, Todd Snyder, first appeared on the court to treat Sampras's injury. After the change-over, Agassi fashioned a break point with a breathtaking angled backhand. Sampras then double- faulted to lose the game, errors which unfortunately were cheered by those over-eager to see an Agassi victory.

Sampras responded by producing some of his finest tennis of the tournament, a topspin lob on the opening point of the fifth game a splendid prelude to the decisive break. A forehand volley had Agassi tottering, and a mis- timed cross-court backhand lost him the game.

Snyder returned to massage the shoulder one more time, and Sampras survived an awkward tumble in the seventh game and a collision with his chair in the ninth game to be in position to serve for the match.

American observers use the phrase 'great location' to describe how a confident Sampras pinpoints his deliveries, as he did so magnificently to defeat Agassi in the final of the 1990 United States Open. He successfully located aces 20, 21 and 22, and then induced Agassi to return a second serve wide on match point.

'I feel like I gave it my best shot and he raised his game to a level at the right time,' Agassi said. 'That's the bottom line, so it's not hard to accept. I'm coming back next year to win it.' With that, he left the court to the new Prince of Tights.

---------------------------------------------------------------- MEN'S SEMI-FINALS HEAD TO HEAD ----------------------------------------------------------------- SAMPRAS v BECKER ----------------------------------------------------------------- Year Venue Surface Round Winner Score 1990 Stockholm Carpet SF Becker 6-4 6-4 1991 Indianapolis Hard F Sampras 7-5 3-6 6-3 1991 Stockholm Carpet QF Becker 7-5 7-5 1991 ATP Finals Carpet round robin Becker 6-4 6-7 6-1 1992 Indianapolis Hard SF Sampras 6-7 6-2 7-6 1992 ATP Finals Carpet round robin Sampras 7-6 7-6 ----------------------------------------------------------------- COURIER v EDBERG ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1989 Basle Carpet F Courier 7-6 3-6 2-6 6-0 7-5 1989 Stockholm Carpet QF Edberg 3-6 6-3 6-4 1990 Indian Wells Hard SF Edberg 6-4 6-1 1991 Australian Open Hard last 16 Edberg 4-6 6-0 6-4 5-7 6-2 1991 French Open Clay QF Courier 6-4 2-6 6-3 6-4 1991 US Open Hard F Edberg 6-2 6-4 6-0 1992 Australian Open Hard F Courier 6-3 3-6 6-4 6-2 1993 Australian Open Hard F Courier 6-2 6-1 2-6 7-5 -----------------------------------------------------------------

Novotna inspired, Results, page 39

(Photographs omitted)