Tennis: Wimbledon '97 - Sparkling Sampras reigns supreme

The Centre Court streaker this year was Pete Sampras. Cedric Pioline barely had a look in. Sampras wrapped up his fourth singles title in 94 minutes, 16 minutes less than it took Martina Hingis to win her first, years ahead of time.

Hingis, 16, went into the record books as the youngest champion of the century. Sampras, 25, continued to home in on a catalogue of legendary figures. In terms of Wimbledon singles titles, Sampras has equalled his hero, Australia's Rod Laver.

The stylish American is one behind Sweden's Bjorn Borg and Wimbledon's own Laurie Doherty, and three behind William Renshaw, of Warwickshire, whose seven successes were achieved during the 1880s.

Sampras has increased his total of Grand Slam singles titles to 10 (only the French Open has eluded him), which is three more than any other active player. He is level with Bill Tilden, a compatriot, one behind Borg and Laver and two short of the Australian Roy Emerson's record of 12.

"It just makes me feel that 12 is so much more realistic, that I can break the record," Sampras said. "To be put in the same sentence as Laver and those guys, you can't have a more flattering comparison.

"To have won 10 major tournaments by the age of 25 is something I never thought would happen, and this is what's going to keep me in the game, I hope, for a lot of years."

Sampras became so excited after his victory yesterday, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, that he was in danger of losing his image as the Steve Davis of tennis. The Californian was already a few strides into a gallop of honour with the trophy when he was tackled, Lions fashion, by the club's chief executive, Chris Gorringe, who reminded him that he had not finished posing for all the photographers.

The spectators, many of whom may have been disappointed that the final had turned out to be the expected exhibition of Sampras's skills rather than a contest, rose to acclaim the American. They also reserved sympathetic cheers for Pioline, who was coaxed into a consolation lap with his runner's- up salver.

It was not that the Frenchman played poorly. His performance yesterday was probably good enough to trouble Michael Stich and Greg Rusedski. But Sampras was several classes above him. He made Pioline look what he was at the start of the tournament, a 100-1 shot.

Unseeded, and with a ranking of No 44, Pioline was allowed one break point, in the eighth game of the third set. Even that was a gift, Sampras double-faulting after steering a forehand volley over the baseline.

"I started thinking about the actual championship at 4-3 in the third when I was serving," Sampras said. "I got a little tentative and tight down to break point, and it was weird. The match was in my hands, and I didn't want to have it slip away."

For Pioline, it was not so much a window of opportunity as a crack in a peep-hole. Tempted with a second serve, he hit a forehand long. Sampras then picked up where he had left off, advancing to 5-3 with a service winner and a forehand volley.

Cold statistics cannot convey the aesthetic majesty Sampras invests in his sport on days like this. But, in simple facts, he diminished his opponent by conceding only 16 points on his serve in the entire match - four in the opening set, three in the second, and nine in the third, when he became profligate.

"I served and volleyed about as well as I've ever served and volleyed in my career," he said, "so I'm really pumped."

His opponent was stumped. Faced with an opponent who opened most of his service games with a service winner or an ace, Pioline not only had problems working out a way to break Sampras, but he also struggled to hold against the American's confident returns.

Deciding, perhaps, that Sampras's backhand represented the weaker wing, the Frenchman's serve was punished so often in feeding it that one can only conclude he must have been terrorised by forehand returns in his seven previous defeats by the American.

Pioline, it must be emphasised, had a wonderful tournament until yesterday, and was not alone in failing to make inroads into the Sampras serve, which retired Boris Becker in the quarter-finals.

The only players who succeeded in breaking the American during the fortnight were Mikael Tillstrom, in the opening round, and Todd Woodbridge, in the semi-finals. In between, Sampras enjoyed an unbroken run of 97 games.

"The only match I struggled in was against [Petr] Korda, when I was two sets up and 5-1 in the tie-breaker," Sampras said. "But every match I played I was pretty much in control. I don't think I've ever played so consistent."

He was asked if history had become a bigger rival than anybody he played against. "I don't like thinking of myself in terms of history," he replied. "I feel that I'm doing quite well for how old I am - 25 is still a pretty young guy - and I feel like I'm still in the middle of my career, and it's not over yet.

"I'm battling against all these guys who are out to beat me, not history - that's something above everyone - and I'm trying to stay on top for as many years as I have. That's the most important thing to me. To have that longevity to stay on top is not easy to do."

And so we adjourn for another year. Same time, same place, same face.

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