Sampras sets up tilt at Agassi

The United States will dominate Germany's farewell to the tennis big-time when Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras contest this afternoon's final of the ATP World Championships. Agassi, already confirmed as No 1 for the year, swept aside the second-ranked Yevgeny Kafelnikov 6-4 7-6 and Sampras extinguished home hopes by defeating Nicolas Kiefer, who comes from this part of the nation, 6-3 6-3. It is the first all-American final since Sampras beat Jim Courier in 1991.

The United States will dominate Germany's farewell to the tennis big-time when Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras contest this afternoon's final of the ATP World Championships. Agassi, already confirmed as No 1 for the year, swept aside the second-ranked Yevgeny Kafelnikov 6-4 7-6 and Sampras extinguished home hopes by defeating Nicolas Kiefer, who comes from this part of the nation, 6-3 6-3. It is the first all-American final since Sampras beat Jim Courier in 1991.

This weekend marks the finale of Germany's occupation of the pinnacle of tennis. These championships move to Lisbon next year after 10 years in Germany, and three days ago the Grand Slam Cup, also a 10-year fixture in Munich, quietly folded when its sponsors, Compaq, decided they had thrown enough dollars at the sport.

Both the moving of the ATP event from New York to Frankfurt, and then Hanover, and the inauguration of the Munich cash-fest were built on the broad shoulders and pulling power of Boris Becker. This year has seen the final, final exit of Becker, followed by the swifter departure of Steffi Graf. With its two marquee names now retired, Germany also finds itself bereft of its two biggest tournaments.

Agassi's victory extended his domination at this final tournament of the millennium. He has now gone through four matches without conceding a set, including a round-robin win over Sampras, but yesterday survived a surprising stumble in the second set when a 2-0 lead was transformed into a 5-2 deficit before he reassembled his game and ushered Kafelnikov through the exit.

Here was a contest between the world Nos 1 and 2, who had divided their previous eight contests. So there was no reason for the Russian to be overawed, even by the presence in Agassi's courtside box of the new lady in his life, Fraulein Graf, who could show both of them a thing or two about big forehands.

However, something was certainly making Kafelnikov edgy in the early stages. A game plagued all week by double-faults had not recovered from this serious blip, and his opening two service games contained five. A brace of double- faults cost him the opening game and three more could well have seen him trailing 0-3. But he settled down and fought off the crisis, though not in time to save the set, which Agassi took in 32 minutes.

When Agassi immediately broke serve again, it seemed all over. Then came the Russian counter-offensive. "All of a sudden he started serving better and playing better," said Agassi. "I was already kind of committed to letting him beat himself." The outcome of this was a five-game spurt to put Kafelnikov in sight of prolonging the contest into a third set.

But Agassi battled back, sweeping three games and taking it into a tiebreak, where at five points all Kafelnikov missed an inviting chance to move to set point when he scooped an attempted half-volley drop shot into the netting. "The ball bounced a little bit uncorrect," was the Russian's explanation.

That error served instead to provide Agassi with his first match point. It was all he needed as Kafelnikov again found the net.

The German intention to make Hanover's farewell a festival rather than a wake was clear when Kiefer came on court. One fan even encouraged him with a yell of "Boris", but Boris he is not. Kiefer is neither as good as Becker nor idolised in anywhere near the same fashion. Perhaps he could make a start towards increased popularity by taking off that silly, back-to-front baseball cap. Germans are historically in favour of caps, but not worn the wrong way round.

Though the sell-out 13,600 audience were anxious to get behind their man, Kiefer did not offer them much to grasp. Trying to keep Sampras on the back foot, the German overdid his service and perpetrated a stream of double-faults.

Sampras, who arrived here with only one match under his belt in the last three months because of back trouble, was back near his marauding best in this contest. He broke for 2-0 and it could have been 5-1 but, at break point, he soared for one of his speciality slam-dunk smashes and drove it into the bottom of the net, smashing his racket in the process. Undismayed, he took the first set in 37 minutes with three aces in succession and broke crucially in the seventh game of the second. It also broke Kiefer's ambitions of becoming the first German since Becker in 1996 to get to the final, and he subsided in 75 minutes.

Sampras, a four-time winner, has appeared in every one of the ATP's championships over the last decade, the only one to do so. Agassi, by contrast, has won the title once before, in 1990. On form, he will be expecting to do so again, but Sampras is finding his game again, and fast.

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