Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - No sign of decline from laid-back Sampras

AT 1.58PM yesterday Pete Sampras emerged from the locker room, turned towards the Royal Box and bowed to those other great stalwarts of the Centre Court, the HRHs Prince Michael and the Duke Of Kent. It does not appear, however, that the American is in the mood to grant any of his fellow players a similar courtesy this fortnight. Sampras bows to no-one on the lawns of Wimbledon.

The good news for his rivals, though, is that Sampras is, in fact, going a little bit. The bad news is that the deterioration is limited exclusively to hair coverage of his scalp. Otherwise there is little sign he has been buffeted by the ageing process.

Sampras may have just entered the 27-30 middle-age spread of the tennis player, but there is little, if any, athletic decline. The service is still heavy (last year he delivered fastest of all at 136mph), the returns pungent and, most flashily of all, the signature leaping smash is still in the repertoire. It was all too lively yesterday for Australia's Scott Draper, out of whom curtains were made. Sampras lingered for 1hr 29min over a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory. At the end there was a weak wave to his audience. The champion does not like to expend too much energy outside office hours.

Had it not been for Richard Krajicek's win here in 1996, Sampras might be chasing a seventh consecutive victory in SW19. As it is, one more Grand Slam would take him clear of Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver, and on to a record- equalling 12 titles alongside Roy Emerson.

For those stranded in the history books and others flailing in the great man's slipstream, there have been encouraging bulletins this year. Sampras's Stella Artois final defeat of Tim Henman at Queen's Club represented his first tournament victory of the year and only his 15th win in all. He has recently endured ankle and back injuries and, at the beginning of the year, took 10 weeks off and started talking uncharacteristically about matters in his life other than tennis. By deed and mouth he seemed to be growing susceptible.

The young lions seeking to chase the king out of the pride will not want to learn much about the Sampras of Wimbledon '99 however. There were just occasional appearances of sunshine, and more frequent bursts of cold wind as the American played yesterday. It was the sort of weather in which the British, uniquely, will sit through while sunbathing on a beach. They were upset conditions.

Sampras contended that he was nervous initially yesterday. He did not show it by action. On a vividly green-striped court - something like the rectory garden - he was, once again, most agile for a man of his proportions. "You know, as far as your first match out, you feel a little bit vulnerable," he said. "I got the early-round jitters. It's always a little unsettling playing your first match out there.

"But once I got out there and started getting into the match I felt like I was back at home on that court. I couldn't ask for a better start. It's the scene. It's the court. From the first point on, this is it for me.

"Grass is a surface that I've done well on over the past few years and I've grown to love it. I couldn't have said that when I first came here. But first day out, the court is very green, very slippery compared to the outside courts. It makes it a little bit dangerous, to be honest with you. The court needs to be played on. It needs to be roughed up a little bit." Then it will know how Draper feels.

The world No 75 was permanently on the slide yesterday as Sampras frequently wrong-footed him on the juicy court. Draper's reaction was to crack the shoe soles with his racket so violently that the beatings stopped just short of self-inflicted bastinado.

Sampras did not react much at all. At the change-rounds he sipped from a bottle containing a weak-looking orange mixture, the sort of thing you used to make up for yourself before a day out with the tadpole net. Then he went out and played clinical tennis. There was not a single break point on his serve. In effect, it was all rather dull.

Indeed, for those who expect vaudeville served by their champions, Sampras is a particularly disappointing beast. On court, as well as off, he aims to be a boring old Bertie this week. He will stay in the same house, with the same maid and the same cook. He will prepare identically to years gone by. And, in all probability, the results will be exactly the same. "This is still a very big event for me," he said, "and I'll just have the same schedule, practise and chill out. I'm pretty much set in my routine."

The boring bit Sampras likes best is that one at the end when he raises the trophy over his head. This year, should he win again, there are reasons to believe the American will put the base of the cup on his crown. It will make all those photographs more sightly.

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