Tennis: Wimbledon '94: Sampras has title in his sights: Defending champion will confront big-serving Ivanisevic in tomorrow's final
Pete Sampras, the defending champion, and Goran Ivanisevic, his fourth-seeded challenger, are prime examples of the serve-dominated modern game, so the outcome will be decided by who catches sight of the ball in time to make a return. Not the most edifying spectacle, perhaps, but emphatically Route One to glory on the grass.
'The first one to serve 40 aces wins,' old boom-boom Boris Becker, a three-times champion, said wryly after being blown of the Centre Court by Ivanisevic (21 aces yesterday) 6-2, 7-6, 6-4.
It is not only the aces thundered down - 100 by Sampras, 139 by his opponent in six matches apiece so far - but also the volume of unreturnable deliveries that makes them unplayable on their day.
Sampras cracked 13 aces past his American compatriot, Todd Martin, in the opening semi-final and was aced the same number of times. Moreover, the champion dropped his first set of the tournament before winning a metronomic contest 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
'Pistol Pete' fretted about his first serves (a handsome 70 per cent in the fourth set, but as low as 29 per cent in the third). 'I didn't serve well the entire match, but I did serve well on the big points,' he said, adding that he expected the final to be 'pretty much the same match as today, it's going to come down to a couple of points'.
A couple of points cost Ivanisevic the title two years ago in that marvellous final against Andre Agassi, who temporarily muted the power- game debate by edging to victory from the baseline with a magazine- full of returns and an array of groundstrokes.
The Croat had defeated Sampras in the semi-finals 6-7, 7-6, 6-4,
6-2, though it must be mentioned that the American, at the time, was far less assured on grass - and other surfaces, come to that.
It was the year when Ivanisevic creased the brow of every administrator in the men's game by hurtling down more than 1,000 aces, a record 206 at Wimbledon, 37 of them in the final.
In the interim, Sampras has taken impressive strides towards fulfilling his potential, coming within two matches of winning a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title at the French Open less than a month ago. Ivanisevic, by contrast, has remained the man with everything except the temperament to win major honours, though he has given every indication of changing this during the current campaign.
In common with Sampras, he has dropped a solitary set (against Alexander Volkov in the quarter- finals). Moreover, his rackets are still intact, and so far he has managed to curb his tongue.
The Becker match was a splendid example of how effective Ivanisevic can be. As he said afterwards: 'If I play like this in the final, I've got every chance of winning it.'
Becker would not argue. The German's best chance of forcing a way into the opening set was destroyed on break point at 4-2, when Ivanisevic sent down an ace timed at 124mph. When the Croat was not belting serves, he was out-punching Becker with volleys and stretching to hit astonishing groundstrokes to the lines and into corners.
The second set was evenly balanced, Becker occasionally treating us to glimpses of the athleticism that made him the youngest, and only unseeded, champion in 1985.
He also had the first opportunity to win the tie-break, at 6-5, but again suffered the frustration of another Ivanisevic ace. The Croat followed this with a service winner to create a set point for himself at 7-6, Becker promptly missing with a backhand volley in response to a service return.
Early in the third set, Becker began to dispute line calls and generally looked ill at ease. To his credit, however, the German did display the lighter side of his nature, bowing to his opponent after an ace, and patting his heart in mock relief after watching a gentle shot bounce wide without being judged to be in.
Once Becker had been broken for 1-2, Ivanisevic pouncing on his second serve with a magnificent backhand drive across the court, the result was not in doubt, and the match was completed in an hour and 54 minutes.
'If you look over the last six or seven years,' Becker said, 'I have lost to the champion, so the odds are pretty much in his favour.'
After a week of non-stop controversy concerning the German's alleged gamesmanship, Becker must have been pleased with the support he received from the crowd, though the wistful wave he gave before departing the scene made one wonder if his days as a champion are past.
Sampras took control of the match against Martin after saving three break points in the eighth game, two of them with aces and the other with a service winner. He finished the set with an ace, then broke in the fifth game of the second set, serving it out with a couple of aces.
Martin capitalised on a comparative slump in the Sampras service department to take the third set, raising the prospect of another of those endurance tests which had been his speciality in previous rounds.
Sampras swiftly disabused him of the notion, and though he had to save four break points in the concluding game - two with aces, another with an unreturnable serve - one match point was sufficient to take him to the final after two hours and 34 minutes.
Martin, who disputed line calls and argued with the umpire far more than is customary, was slow attending his interview, which prompted a rumour that he was ill. The only sickness proved to be one of disappointment. 'It was nothing to do with anything,' he said. 'I just needed a little extra time.'
It was one of those days when nobody could expect that. And tomorrow? According to Sampras: 'It depends who wakes up and feels better.'
Wimbledon results, page 23
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