Tennis / Wimbledon '94: Lethal weapons take aim for final: Guy Hodgson on the power behind today's men's semi-finalists. Power players line up for battle of the aces and a place in the final

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THERE is one thing for certain about the identity of the men's champion at Wimbledon this year: he will possess a serve that could be used as a blunt weapon. A megalomaniac would be impressed with the extent of the power being exercised in the semi- finals on Centre Court today.

Ask people with only a strawberries-and-cream knowledge of the sport and they would probably have plumped for Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic as potential winners, partly because of the force they inflict with a flex of their arm. Those that can tell their Jimmy Arias from their tennis elbow would also have included Todd Martin in the list of players with a first stroke of frightening, and title-winning, proportions.

The serve has always been a potent weapon on grass but this year the identity of the four semi-finalists would suggest Wimbledon has reached a point of no return. The theory that sun-baked courts played into the hands of the baseliners is in shreds, the four remaining men are fully paid up members of the serve and volley fraternity.

Ivanisevic has unleashed 118 aces so far, which works out at nearly a set of free points per match, while the sum total of the missiles unleashed from the rackets of the other three semi-finalists comes to 239. Not for nothing are the words 'God makes us grateful for what we receive' being mumbled by shell- shocked opponents.

Which makes Pete Sampras's assessment of his transformation from a man with a grass-court record that would shame someone with rampant and drug-resistant hay fever to Wimbledon champion a surprise.

'The return of serve is the one shot that, if you're going to win here, you have to hit well,' he said. explaining why he won one match in his first three visits to the All England Club though he has been a semi-finalist and title winner since. 'I had to learn to shorten the backswing with my returns. That was the biggest problem in the first few years.'

It will be the biggest problem today for Sampras, who meets Todd Martin, the man he could not break in the final of Queen's three weeks ago. Then he suffered defeat by tie-break, 7-6, 7-6, the only occasion he has lost to today's opponent. Pertinently it is also the one time they have met on grass.

'It is much better,' Sampras said, comparing his form to that at Queen's. 'Wimbledon is the biggest tournament in the world and you get up for it more. I'm not saying I didn't try to win at Queen's but I came up short against Todd. Here my tennis is getting better and better.'

For a while against Michael Chang on Wednesday it neared perfection but Martin, who lost in straight sets to Sampras in the final of the Australian Open in January, nevertheless is one of only five men to topple Sampras this year.

'It's an honour to play the No 1 player in the world and that's how I'm going to treat it,' Martin said. 'I'm playing the defending champion on Centre Court at Wimbledon and that's my second favourite dream come true. Maybe a few days after that I'll have my first one too.'

Sampras, who has yet to lose a set, will probably prevail today but the other semi- final is less easy to call. Ivanisevic and Becker both travel too easily from peaks to troughs at the moment and Chang, for one, believes mental factors will play a bigger part than physical ones.

'It really depends on the day sometimes with Goran,' he said. 'He can come out and everything is there. He's very focused and he's able to play some great tennis. Other days he gets a little bit frustrated and it can hurt his game.'

Becker currently could gain a PhD in psychology given that everyone who plays him at the moment moans about gamesmanship, and the sparks are liable to fly with a Croat whose fuse can sometimes be so short it is invisible to the naked eye.

Asked what he would do if Becker, who has received hate mail as a result of his tactics, tried to slow him down, he replied: 'Nothing. Stop and try to hit ace after ace.'

'I know him well. We played in the semi-finals here in 1990 and I got scared when I had to serve for two sets to love up. It's a different story now and it doesn't matter what he is going to do. He can stop me, he can go to the locker room, he can do whatever he wants to do. I'm going to play my own game.'

After that meeting four years ago Becker said his opponent reminded him of a young player who had arrived at Wimbledon and won it. The German was talking about himself but he also indicated he believed Ivanisevic will win the men's singles in time.

He may be reminded of those words today.

(Photograph omitted)