Tennis / Wimbledon '94: A final show of power: Simon O'Hagan weighs up prospects for a fascinating battle on Centre Court today

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IN 1984, John McEnroe beat Jimmy Connors to win his third Wimbledon title. His tennis that day, many people felt, was as close to perfection as is possible in sport. In 80 minutes he destroyed Connors - 6-1 6-1 6-2 - with a display of precision and artistry the like of which had rarely been seen.

Ten years on, a player has emerged to rival McEnroe for the quality of his tennis. But when Pete Sampras goes out to defend his Wimbledon title against Goran Ivanisevic today, the possibility that he might lose only four games looks a very remote one indeed. Such is the way the game has changed in the past decade.

The change began the year after McEnroe's victory, when Boris Becker heralded the era of the 'power-game'. Tennis has not looked back. Now Becker has been superseded. 'Evolution,' he calls it. 'I used to be one of the tallest in the locker room,' Becker says. 'Now I'm medium. Probably in 20 years I'm the smallest around.'

At 6ft 4in, Ivanisevic is one of the players making Becker feel that way. But there is more to it than mere size. It is the service power that Ivanisevic is able to generate with his lean and supple frame that marks another stage in tennis's development, with all the dubious benefits we associate with progress generally.

Ivanisevic's serve - the fastest ever recorded on the Centre Court at 136mph - is what stands between Sampras and his second successive Wimbledon title. At 140 aces for the tournament so far, he is a little down on 1992, when he was runner-up to Andre Agassi and served 206 in all, including 37 in the final. But his 22 in three sets in his semi-final against Becker was as good a strike rate as he gets, and anything like that today and Sampras, much Ivanisevic's superior in all other respects, could have a struggle on his hands.

Tennis's other respects, unfortunately, will hardly figure in the final, just as they did not in either semi-final. In a taxi back to Wimbledon station on Friday evening, a middle-aged couple who had had Centre Court tickets were reflecting on what they had seen. 'It was just all serve. A shame, really.' Then silence. Sampras, Becker, Ivanisevic and Todd Martin - great players all - had given them very little to talk about.

It was a shame, because Sampras's gifts are so sublime that it seems a crime to have so few of them on display. And even Ivanisevic has more to his game than mere serve. He could not have got to the final otherwise. But as things stand, we are likely to get a tennis equivalent of a long-driving competition in golf.

Treasure those rallies then, when they happen. Marvel at the angles Sampras finds on his volleys, the timing and fluency of his groundstrokes, the way he uses his opponent's power to generate even more of his own, the speed of thought and movement that lie behind near- faultless shot selection. For in spite of the defeat by Jim Courier in Paris earlier this month that cost him the chance of becoming the first player to do the Grand Slam since Rod Laver, the 22-year-old Sampras, world No 1 by a greater margin than any player has ever been, remains tennis's supreme exponent, and has a sufficiently relaxed attitude to the game to stay that way for years to come. That, indeed, is his stated aim.

Even Sampras is not beyond improvement, according to his coach Tim Gullikson, and in picking out what he calls 'minor things', he does offer some hope to Ivanisevic. 'Sometimes his service toss goes astray,' Gullikson says, and it is true that Sampras's serve has not been up to its formidable best. 'Sometimes on his return-of- serve he goes a little astray.'

Therein lies the key to the match. Two years ago, Agassi denied Ivanisevic the title mainly because of his extraordinary skill at returning serve. Sampras needs to match that if he is to make some headway. But big matches usually come down to one or two points, and if both men serve to their full capability those points could well be confined to tie-breaks - each man has dropped only one set on his way to the final.

On the evidence of Ivanisevic's performance against Becker in his semi-final, it would be wrong to characterise him as a one-shot player. His own return of serve was generally reliable and sometimes brilliant, and those glimpses of his all-court game that we were given suggested a versatility and mental strength not normally associated with Ivanisevic.

The man behind Ivanisevic is Bob Brett, coach to Boris Becker during the German's most successful years, and adept at taking the best and making it better. 'He's worked very hard,' he says of Ivanisevic, and there is now a discipline to go with the industry. Ivanisevic's unpredictable nature has not been suppressed completely, and he still plays the odd stinker. But he surely will not in a Wimbledon final.

He also goes into it leading Sampras on previous meetings 5-3. Two have been on grass - in Manchester in 1991 and in the Wimbledon semi-final of 1992 - both won by Ivanisevic. But Sampras has improved enormously since then, and had the better of their last meeting, in the 1993 ATP finals.

For almost all of this Wimbledon, few people have doubted that Sampras would win it again. He has quietly gone about his business, impressing but not exciting, an air of inevitability about him, and been accorded little attention. But now the feeling is that it might not be quite so straightforward.

Becker thought the match would be won by the first man to 40 aces, and he was not being entirely flippant. Can aces alone win Wimbledon? It is a worrying thought, but aces could well account for a couple of sets' worth of points today. Some tennis, we hope, will be played, and when it is, Sampras is the player who should come out on top.

(Photograph omitted)