WIMBLEDON '95: Sampras struggles to subdue Braasch

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The Independent Online
For a few tantalising moments yesterday, it was feasible to envisage the Wimb-ledon hat-trick quest of Pete Sampras becoming entangled in the complicated machinery of a haphazard service action that makes Karsten Braasch a figure of fun on the men's Tour. Against a journeyman performer ranked 119 places below him, it should have been a stroll on the grass for the defending champion. Instead, Sampras called it "a pain in the arse".

So far it has not been a good year for Braasch. Had he been called upon to pen a review of the first six months the bespectacled German might well have pinched a line from Brad Gilbert, the coach of Andre Agassi, and entitled it "losing ugly". He has dropped 65 rungs on the ladder, yet there was enough to raise his hopes that this could have turned out to be his day for glory.

He held a break-point for a 6-5 lead in the first set before a tentative Sampras rallied his game. The second set went to the underdog with a stunning display of tie-break tennis.

As a gauge of the title-holder's form and mood back on his favourite lawns, it needs to be recalled that Sampras was well on his way to a semi- final victory over Todd Martin last year before he conceded his first set of an ultra-assured campaign. At 1-1 yesterday afternoon on a Centre Court bathed in sunshine, it was possible that another image of 12 months ago - that of Steffi Graf having her crown displaced in the very first round - would have intruded into the Sampras consciousness.

At that point, he reported after his 7-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-1 victory: "I was definitely not a happy camper. Karsten's service is certainly different and unorthodox, but it is effective. He gives it a lot of spin and it is difficult to read. In fact, he can be a pain in the arse to play."

Seasoned commentators compete for the best description for a service manoeuvre that begins with a vigorous wind-up and knee-bend before the ball is smacked across the net in the fashion of someone chopping down oak trees. He was asked after his defeat if it was self-taught. "No, it was taught to me by some tennis teachers in my home town [Marl]. I guess they were probably not very good. My attitude is that if it's working OK why should I change it?

"I wish more people would describe playing me as a pain in the arse. If people don't want to face me or are afraid of me, that's got to be good for me."

More kindly, Sampras described his opponent as "a crafty player". His floated returns to the forehand side often had the American hastily adjusting his footwork, and more encouragement came from the number of openings Sampras inexplicably failed to grasp. "I would have loved to have won in straight sets, but it feels good to get the first round out of the way in one of the majors," Sampras said.

The No 2 seed next comes up against the new British hope, Tim Henman. Aside from the honour of becoming only the second man since Fred Perry to claim a hat-trick of titles - Bjorn Borg managed a winning sequence of five years from 1976 to 1980 - Sampras has the incentive of want-ing to accelerate the recovery of his coach, Tim Gullikson, who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for a brain tumour.

"It's so difficult not having him here because for the past three or four years everything at Wimbledon has been so smooth for me, but as long as I know he's doing good I can help him by going out and winning," he said.

A dismal season on clay has been consigned far behind him. "I was pretty glad to see a grass court again, and winning at Queen's was good for my confidence. I feel as if I will be here for a while," Sampras said.

It is something Goran Ivanisevic also hopes to be able to say. With the Croatian, you never really know - he can turn from the sublime to the ridiculous as quickly as he can change ends.

In the Nineties, he has made spectacular progress here every time the year has ended in an even number, finishing as runner-up in 1992 and 1994, and earning a semi-final place in 1990.

In between, he has emphasised the erratic nature of his game that makes him such an enigmatic choice to prevail in the final. Encouragingly, the No 4 seed had things very much his own way, sweeping past the challenge of Sebastian Lareau in straight sets. It was not until the third set that Lareau threatened to put a brake on Ivanisevic's momentum. He took a 3- 0 lead, but any hint of a comeback was swiftly smothered and a 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 victory was parcelled up in less than 90 minutes.

The first seed to depart was Richard Krajicek, of the Netherlands, who succumbed to Bryan Shelton 7-6, 6-3, 6-3. At one stage, it looked as though Krajicek's compatriot, Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, would beat him to that dubious distinction. The women's No 15 seed trailed a set and was break point down in the eighth game of the second before eventually wearing down her Czech opponent, Radka Bobkova, 6-7, 7-6, 6-1.

Iva Majoli, the 11th seed, was the most prominent woman's casualty on a day of limited surprise. There was little hint of what was to come when the 17-year-old prospect from Croatia sailed through her first set against Mexico's Angelica Gavaldon. However, by the end, Majoli's resistance was paper thin as she crashed out 1-6, 6-3, 6-1.