Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Supreme Sampras raises standard

Men's final: Agassi brings out the brilliance in fellow American during a thrilling climax to the championships

ALL RIGHT, the match was decided in straight sets. And the fellow who came out on top was the one who had won it five years out of the previous six. Nobody smashed a racket or abused the umpire. There wasn't even a rain break to give the plot a tweak.

But as Pete Sampras left the Centre Court yesterday evening, there can have been few among the spectators who felt that they had seen anything other than a tennis ball being hit just about as well as a man can do it.

In a sense, it wasn't close. The match went by quickly, with a single break of serve in each set. Only six of the 31 games went to deuce. The winner took the first game, and the loser was forced to chase him the rest of the way. Andre Agassi could never quite haul himself up to the level of the man he first encountered on a tennis court when they were no more than children.

But how misleading the mere statistics of a match can be. Yesterday afternoon, there were individual points that could have had novels written about them.

Like this one. Second set, 15-all, Sampras serving. Agassi snaps in a great backhand pass, a certain winner. Sampras races across the court and hurls himself horizontally to interrupt the flight of the ball with a flying volley that floats over the net cord and drops in. The crowd explodes. Agassi stands on the spot from which he hit the backhand, just beyond the baseline in the ad court, and stares straight ahead. As Sampras rises slowly to his feet, brushing at the long graze on the elbow of his racket arm, Agassi doesn't move. It's as if he's in shock. Five seconds, 10, 15, he stands there, lost in something. Not until Sampras has resumed the position to serve the next point does he refocus his eyes and return to the moment.

Or this. Same set, Agassi serving at 4-5, 40-15. Agassi gives Sampras his very best forehand not once but twice, one to each wing with consecutive shots, the ball taken as early as only Agassi can take it, skimming the net in the lowest possible arc, giving his opponent the minimum time to respond. But off the second one, hit deep into the angle of the deuce court, Sampras sends back a forehand of his own, hit down the middle with such power and length that it has Agassi scrambling in a dust cloud on the baseline as it zips by. An amazing shot, in itself. But how had Sampras got there in time to play it?

"In the middle of the second set," Sampras said afterwards, "I was on fire. From all aspects of my game, from my serving to my ground strokes, I was playing in the zone. It's not easy to maintain that on grass, especially playing him [Agassi]. But it was as well as I could play, plain and simple."

Or this. Third set, Agassi serving at 3-4 and deuce, having just saved two break points. Sampras winds up a cross-court forehand. Agassi races across the baseline and, with the merest flick of his racket, whips a forehand at an even more acute angle. It passes over the high part of the net and slants sharply down with the top spin to land on the one square yard of grass that Sampras can't reach.

So Agassi, too, played a part. To win a sixth championship, Sampras had to beat a man who has brilliantly adapted a baseline approach to the pace of the grass-court game. That Sampras led from the front, and refused to allow his rival to get close enough to get even a glimpse of victory, did nothing to diminish the quality of the contest, or of Agassi's contribution.

The Las Vegan was right when he said afterwards that his service had not been at its strongest. Nor, although he did not say it, was he covering the width of the backcourt with the voraciousness we saw, particularly, in the early rounds at Wimbledon in 1995, when he played tennis touched by the gods until Boris Becker brought him to earth in the semi-final. Agassi never reached those heights yesterday. But then he was playing Pete Sampras.

"It wouldn't happen every time," Agassi said afterwards, when someone asked him if the same thing would happen were they to repeat the contest. "I'd expect to beat him maybe two times out of 10 on grass." Yesterday was their second contest on grass in almost 10 years of meeting each other in Grand Slam competitions. The previous time, in the 1993 Wimbledon quarter-finals, Sampras won. By that yardstick, Agassi has a long wait coming.

What we were seeing was the expression of a rivalry that should have dominated men's tennis in the Nineties. Thanks to the ups and downs of Agassi's personal life, it didn't. His failure to maintain his challenge throughout the years of their prime robbed Sampras, to some extent, of the chance to establish the true measure of his greatness, beyond the contents of his trophy room.

But here it was, right in front of us, the spectacle of the two greatest men tennis players of the decade, both nearing 30, confronting each other for only the fourth time in the final of a Grand Slam tournament, one looking back on a career of unbroken dedication, the other still savouring the satisfaction of rebuilding a shattered reputation.

"Andre and I probably went out a little more nervous than usual," Sampras said. "It's not an easy situation. It's not easy to play well in a final like this. There's a lot at stake, and playing Andre on the Fourth of July is different from playing anyone else. I knew it was going to be a tough fight, and it was. Much tougher than three, four and five, which was the score."

Sampras's previous victims this year, from Danny Sapsford to Tim Henman, would hardly have recognised yesterday's player. The ponderous, tentative, morose figure of the earlier rounds disappeared the moment he set eyes on the figure with the shaven head and the pigeon-toed waddle.

"You know, Andre brings out the best in me," he said. "There's no question that he elevates my game, because I have so much respect for his game. If I'm not at my best, it's a long day against him. I haven't played many matches this week, and I really didn't feel I was settled into the tournament. But I came out relaxed today, loose and in a good rhythm on my serve."

The serve was at its finest on the few occasions when Agassi was able to mount a serious challenge.

"I had maybe six different games where I was 30-30," Agassi said, "and if he didn't hit an ace on the first serve he was hitting his second serve at 109, 111, sometimes 119 or 120. He's taking chances out there, and people think he's walking on water until he starts missing a few of those. But he didn't. So he walked on water today."

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