Tennis: Wimbledon '97 - Pioline puffs to keep pace with Pete

Richard Edmondson witnesses a one-sided competition set before a Centre Court crowd with a penchant for the clinical finish

There was a continental feel to the men's final yesterday, and it was not all down to the presence of Cedric Pioline. It was more the crowd.

There was never a shred in their reaction to suggest this was an audience expecting a particularly well-contested duel to be thrown before them. These spectators were the latter-day equivalents of the harridans who collected at the base of madame guillotine to watch an aristocratic head bobble into the wickerwork, or the sort of crowd who might attend a corrida. There was a sense of inevitability about Pete Sampras's victory and what the cognoscenti required of him was a quick and clinical kill, involving the minimum of suffering to the chosen victim.

Cedric, which is the sort of name you find in the potting shed, was the first Frenchman since Yvon Petra, which is the sort of name you normally find in the other locker-room, to contest a Wimbledon final. His tennis career is a testament to the skills of a surgeon who had to operate to make one of his legs shorter than its true length. At times yesterday Pioline was made to look as impotent as Long John Silver.

The British sporting aficionado has become used to enigmatic Frenchmen dominating the field of play and immediate confirmation of Pioline's supposed capriciousness emerged. In front of his wife Miereille, who was making her first visit to England, he double-faulted on the first point and followed that up with an ace.

The body language, however, did not quite carry the same conviction as earlier in the tournament. Pioline had returned more impressively than Lazarus against Rusedski and Stich in previous rounds, but here he was swatting blindly at 130mph-plus serves. In addition, the first volley, which was formerly his greatest ally, had defected.

In the Royal Box, Jack Kramer, who won this title 50 years ago, must have been bewildered by the ballistics going on beneath him. Nearby, Ken Rosewall, too, would have been baffled by the modern power game, especially so as his serve could have landed in a trifle without making much mess.

Sampras, by his own observation, has never served as well in his life. The American has played beautifully all fortnight, but has been lurking in the bullrushes as the good ship Britannia has taken all the interest with her.

It is one of Sampras's greatest skills than he shuts out the extraneous jumble of a match that confuses others. Yesterday both he and Pioline made no drama out of the court condition. This was no light feat as the ball occasionally popped out of earthy areas like a golf ball dropped on tarmac.

Sampras's victory puts him level in the Grand Slam ladder with Bill Tilden on 10, one behind Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg and two behind Roy Emerson, and if he beats the Australian's record in these increasingly competitive times it will take a shrewd debater to refute he is the greatest player we have ever seen.

Still, that will not be enough for some. Sampras's unswerving concentration on court is criticised by those who also like their champions to be Rhodes scholars with a tinge of laddish humour, an amalgam of Einstein and Tarby.

"I know I'm not David Letterman when it comes to interviews but the way I am on court is the way I've been all my life," he said. "And it's the way I'll continue to be."

Sampras trundled through Wimbledon '97 as relentlessly as a logging machine in the forest. There were some sequoia moments from Pioline yesterday but he, like the rest, was eventually chewed up. At contest's end yesterday, the winner simply held his hands aloft, punched his heart and then blew a kiss to an occupant of the guests' box. He spoke briefly to Pioline and probably apologised. In the seats, someone suggested a beer match might be appropriate.

The summery pastels in the crowd cheered the victor's lap of honour. Then there was also prolonged applause for a circuit from Pioline. After just one hour and 34 minutes of predictable action there was still a lot of nervous tension to be dispersed.

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