Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Henman fails his history final

Sampras sweeps into shoot-out with Agassi
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The Independent Online
THERE WERE times when bookmakers would give you short odds on the world ending before Britain produced another Wimbledon champion. By this time tomorrow, we will know a bit more about the apocalypse, but, for a frantically partisan crowd on Centre Court yesterday, the tennis world stopped revolving at 3.54pm when Pete Sampras, the defending champion, completed a 3-6 6-4 6-3 6-4 victory over Tim Henman. The Union Jack was lowered and replaced by the Stars and Stripes, appropriately enough on America's Independence Day.

The final, Sampras v Andre Agassi, was not the one demanded by the British public, but only the most skewed of observers could deny that this is a climax worthy not only of a momentous tournament but of an explosive decade. To add to the intrigue, Agassi's victory over Patrick Rafter yesterday took the Las Vegan back to the number one spot occupied by his greatest rival, almost unbroken, for the past six years.

The rivalry, a classic confrontation of styles, dates back to early teenage years, long before statistics logged dates and times. A decade on from their first official meeting, on clay in Rome, the score stands at 13- 10 to Sampras. The one match at Wimbledon ended in victory for Sampras in five sets. Together they have won 15 grand slam titles and, in their different ways, defined an era. "The stage is set," said Agassi, a straight sets victor over Rafter. "The time is right for us to go out there and not miss our cue."

The theory is that it will be Sampras's serve against Agassi's return, but Agassi has not been broken since last Saturday, a run of 56 straight service games. In riposte, the champion has lost only once in 31 matches on his beloved Centre Court.

Henman can but dream of such riches. The parallels with his match against Sampras at the same stage 12 months ago were undeniable and largely depressing for the Englishman. Then, Henman had taken a set and 17 games off the champion, prompting the belief that a year on his improvement combined with the American's relative decline might balance the equation. The only differences yesterday were statistical; Henman took the first set, not the second, and Sampras won two games fewer. In all other ways, the gap between the two remained stubbornly unbridgeable. It will be that fact more than any other which will haunt the Englishman when he wakes this morning. His game, so competent and solid against lesser ranked opponents, was simply not combative or powerful enough to disturb the serenity of the five-times champion.

What can Henman take from this Wimbledon and the familar sound of punctured balloons? "My overall performances are better," he said. "I'm a better player than last year, I know that. At this rate, I think I'll be clear favourite by 2002." Only if Pete Sampras has decided to take up golf full- time. "If I keep improving in the way I have done, hopefully he's not going to improve much. I've got to be persistent." At times, Henman must have wished the pair were back on the golf course, where the Englishman has administered his share of thrashings. On the tennis court, Henman has now lost six out of six.

The end was surprisingly anti-climatic compared to the hysteria generated by earlier victories: no last hurrahs, no thundering cheers nor flailing flags. Partly that was due to Sampras's unsurpassed killer instinct; having been hard pressed to save his own service twice in the fourth set, he pounced on Henman's one moment of uncertainty. It was over before the crowd could lift their champion. Partly it was due to the realisation that expectation had once again exceeded deed. Yet enough good judges had predicted Sampras's downfall to give the wheel of hype an extra turn.

There were reasons to be cheerful as the players took to Centre Court on a blustery but thankfully sunny afternoon. Sampras had reached the semi-final like the invisible man and had been comprehensively outplayed in his brief encounter with the unfortunate Mark Philippoussis. Plenty of rust had been visible in his narrow victory over Henman at Queen's and a general lack of match play over a barren year suggested that the world number one might have lost his edge.

But his courtcraft is still unrivalled at the tournament he has dominated for much of the decade. "I was able to raise my game at the right times," he said, adding that the difference between him and his friend and rival Henman was "a matter of a couple of points". That was charitable; Sampras knows well enough that a couple of points is all you need on grass. It may as well be a couple of sets. Henman has to find the knack if he is to fulfil all his potential and his country's hopes.

Not for the first time here, Henman's serve was at the root of his troubles. Both players served 10 double-faults, as much a fickle wind as nerves, but Henman's came at more critical moments, notably at the end of the second set and in the deciding game of the fourth set. Henman had taken advantage of Sampras's erratic serving in the opening set by breaking in the second and fourth games. Though Sampras broke back with a forehand service return, Henman took the first set in 37 minutes. For a moment, the champion looked a beaten man, his shoulders slumped below his knees and when he summoned the trainer to treat a strained groin early in the second set, the Wimbledon crowd began to sense a radical changing of the guard. It was Sampras, though, who lifted his game.

As the tie-break beckoned, Henman buckled, serving two double-faults in the 10th game, the second of which gifted the champion the equalising set. "That was a huge turning point," Sampras said. "Once I'd got the second set I was able to elevate my game. I hung on in the fourth and, all of a sudden, I've got three match points." From 2-0 down, even Sampras might have found the hill too steep. But another swift break at the start of the third set was all the American needed to assert his superiority. He began to serve more cleverly, varying his pace and angle to perfection, and when danger beckoned, he had the champion's ability to summon an ace or to serve and volley with breathtaking conviction. That one break decided the third set.

At the start of the fourth, the crowd, silently absorbed by Sampras's increasing dominance, renewed their vows of support. Though tinged now with desperation, the cries of "Come on, Tim" even broke into some sycnhronised applause, the nearest a Centre Court crowd could come to downright hooliganism. Henman responded gallantly and twice had points to break the American. If he could drag the match into a fifth set, maybe his superior fitness would tell.

A pushed forehand which landed just inside the tramlines gave him a point for a 4-2 lead. Sampras's response was a vicious second serve which bounced high to Henman's backhand. The ball ballooned out of court accompanied by a thousand groans. In Sampras's next service game, the assurance of his serve and volleying averted another crisis and made Henman look like a man tired of knocking his head against a brick wall. From break point up, a double-fault and a service return ripped mercilessly past his backhand lunge gave the American three points for what most regarded as the decisive break.

The crowd called for one more curtain call, willed their man to one last effort. A forehand service return brought a brief hope, but it was quickly extinguished by Sampras's serve. "It's only a matter of time before he breaks through and wins here," Sampras said of Henman. Henman vowed to return, but he will not need Nostradamus to tell him that the end of the world is nigh.

Tim Glover, Page 2

TALKING POINTS

"You have got the luxury of seeing a number of things - a contrast in play and personality, two guys who have grown up together and somehow have managed to bring the best out of each other. The stage is set. It's time to go out there and not miss the cue" Andre Agassi savours the prospect of an Independence Day final

"The second set went away very quickly and in the third set he went up a gear. His level was consistently high and he is the best grass court player. Today he was too good for me" Tim Henman acknowledging Sampras as the master

"I can't ask for much more. To win the French Open [last month] and to win through to the finals again, that's an incredible few weeks" Steffi Graf on preserving her hopes for an eighth Wimbledon title

"I'm not sure if she's doing it for attention. Some of the things sound crazy. I don't think we appreciate her commenting on our way of life" Lindsay Davenport on the mother of her semi-final victim.

MATCH POINTS

Tim Henman proves unable to subdue the masterful Pete Sampras on Centre Court

Andre Agassi sweeps aside the Australian No 2 seed Pat Rafter in straight sets

Lindsay Davenport ends the remarkable run of Alexandra Stevenson to reach her first final

Steffi Graf uses her experience to recover from losing the first set to beat Mirjana Lucic

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