Wimbledon '95: Rebel Agassi threatens Sampras treble

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We have traced the Wimbledon whinger who first complained about the "monotony of lawn tennis" and predicted that the game was doomed: a local fellow, named Spencer Gore, whose only credential was that he won the inaugural men's singles championship in 1877.

An old Harrovian, Gore was renowned for a potent volley; not surprising, since he sometimes hit the ball before it actually crossed net. He was dismayed by the "want of variety", though not by the power of the serve - underarm deliveries rarely touched 130mph. We can only guess what he would make of the giants with hi-tech rackets who are about to bombard the lawns today.

More than anything else, the championships need an entertaining climax to dispel an air of gloom engendered by the monochrome efficiency of the last two men's singles finals.

The women's game may be in something of a state, lacking big-name players and a tour sponsor, but Saturday has been more memorable than Sunday of late, with Conchita Martinez upstaging Martina Navratilova's farewell and Jana Novotna crying on the Duchess of Kent's shoulder.

Worried that the concluding Sunday is in danger of turning into a day of sleep for spectators and a world-wide television audience, the sport's governing bodies are exploring changes in the specification of the ball in an attempt to reinvent rallying.

The ball in use during the next fortnight is the customary one, with marginally less pressure than usual. Much has been made of this, some players describing the ball as soft, or heavy, or flat. The proof of the pudding is in the hitting, and the only time any difference has been detected was in cold, overcast conditions.

Pete Sampras, the 24-year-old American who is hoping to become the first man since Bjorn Borg to win a hat-trick of Wimbledon singles titles, simply shrugs and states that grass will always be the fastest surface in the world.

In 1992, the power of Sampras's attacking game overcame the might of Jim Courier's groundstrokes. A year ago, Sampras outserved Goran Ivanisevic, the player liable, more than any other, to reduce matches to one-shot points. As Sampras says, "You can put a basketball in Goran's hand and he will still hit an ace."

Probably the best chance of a grand finale would be for the projections to work out so that Sampras meets his compatriot Andre Agassi, the top seed and world No1. We would then have a contrast of styles and personalities involving the two players who dominate the game on surfaces other than the slowest, clay.

Agassi began his conversion from flashy showman to major champion by edging the 1992 final against Ivanisevic. He has since overcome injuries, and the occasional lapse into his previous mode of inconsistency, to win the United States and Australian championships, supplanting Sampras as the top man in the game.

Be prepared for a less frivolous Agassi, not the clown he looks when touring as Baldrick. On this occasion he may not even live up to his image as the scruffiest player in history, although his pristine outfits could still appear to have been taken from a larger man's laundry.

Agassi would like to see service lets called as faults, and also an end to the advantage scoring system, so that the point after deuce wins a game. He says: "If a guy is serving at 40-30, you have to win the next point and then win two in a row. Now, if you had to win one of the next two points, there is a heck of a chance you are going to break the guy. If you are playing against Sampras and he is serving at 15-40, there is still a 60 per cent chance he is going to hold serve. A no-ad scoring system, and that drops considerably, to maybe a 23 per cent chance he is going to hold serve."

The combination of improved dedication, abiding popularity, tremendous groundstrokes and the ability to demoralise big servers with astonishing returns, makes the Las Vegan irresistible. Undoubtedly the darling of the interview room, we must trust that he keeps his responses clean on the court should events run against him.

Sampras, who has contested only one Grand Slam final since leaving the All England Club last year, endeared himself enormously by the way in which he conducted himself in traumatic circumstances during the Australian Open in January.

Aware that Tim Gullikson was dangerously ill with a brain tumour, Sampras broke down in tears on the Centre Court when a spectator called out, "Do it for your coach, Pete", towards the end of the fourth set of the semi- final against Courier. Though continuing to weep, Sampras went on to win a classic match. He then lost to Agassi in four sets in the final.

Sampras keeps in touch with Gullikson by telephone while the coach continues a course of treatment in Chicago. Paul Annacone, a Wimbledon quarter-finalist in 1984, assists with the champion's preparation, and Todd Snyder, a former ATP Tour trainer, advises him on fitness.

But for his difficulties, it would be possible to advance Sampras as the strong favourite. In the circumstances, his suspect confidence has to be lumped with the tournament's other imponderables: Agassi's hip, Becker's calf, Steffi Graf's wrist and back; everybody's psyche.

Should Sampras successfully negotiate his way to the semi-final stage, he could be involved in another serving duel with Ivanisevic, or Todd Martin or Richard Krajicek, or face the maturing skills of the Russian baseliner, Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

In the champion's quarter of the draw, it would be exciting to see Greg Rusedski, of the 137mph serve and British passport, strike a blow for his adoptive nation. Strip away his change of status, however, and he would warrant little more mention than the phrase, "dangerous outsider".

Michael Stich looms as a potential threat to Agassi, with Becker and Stefan Edberg determined to prove that they have more than squatters' rights to the grounds, and Courier and Michael Chang swotting up on how Borg the baseliner was able to triumph for five consecutive years.

Your correspondent expects to see Sampras and Graf lift the trophies, but will not be investing with Ladbrokes. Here's to soft balls and hard battles. Less power to their elbows; except Greg's, of course.


Men's singles: 10-11 Sampras, 9-2 Agassi, 13-2 Becker, 9-1 Ivanisevic, 12-1 Stich, 20-1 Martin, 150-1 any British winner (same price as the Queen abdicating this year), 200-1 Rusedski, 750-1 Bates.

Women's singles: 8-15 Graf, 11-4 Martinez, 10-1 Pierce, 12-1 Sanchez Vicario, 20-1 Novotna, 33-1 Davenport, 40-1 Sabatini. (Odds supplied by William Hill)