WIMBLEDON '95: Unloved and virtually unbeatable

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Four points into his quarter-final against Shuzo Matsuoka, Pete Sampras swung at one of his opponent's better serves and found himself, feet planted, swishing at thin air. Court One erupted as if the Japanese player had just claimed an unlikely victory, but if Sampras felt that a defending champion deserves a little more respect, he did not let it show.

Not, perhaps, the greatest of surprises, since Sampras is the man who never lets anything show, and as a result his rapport with the Wimbledon crowd has never drifted beyond the limits of admiration into the tramlines of affection.

Nor, to judge by the semi-final line-up, will this latest campaign do much to redress the balance. The flamboyant Las Vegan, the fiery Croat, Boom-Boom Boris - and the quiet chap from Tampa. Who would you choose?

If the question, though, were who would you bet on, the answer might be rather different. Sampras started the fortnight at odds-on to retain his title, and his performance yesterday proved why. The crowd could not contain its excitement - or disbelief - as Matsuoka matched the champion shot for shot, break for break, before taking the first set on a tie-break. Then, serving at 3-3, Sampras was suddenly 0-40 down and the second set, even the match, seemed to be slipping away.

The next time Matsuoka won a point, Sampras was up 5-3, 40-0. The previous dozen had gone the American's way, and so, too, the next, which squared the match. It was an astonishing change of pace, the hallmark of brilliance, and a sequence which effectively won the match. Whether it won Sampras a single extra fan, though, is more doubtful.

There is no handle with Sampras, nothing to grasp. Connors grunted, McEnroe threw tantrums, Agassi looks like a guitarist with the Gypsy Kings. Sampras' defining characteristic, by contrast, is the strange way he points his toe into the air before serving. Or perhaps the watery orange squash he swigs at the changeover, from a bottle just like the one your mother used to put in your sandwich box. Neither seems likely to spawn a generation of imitators on the public courts.

As for emotion, the sharp, almost embarrassed, yelp which followed a break of Matsuoka's serve early in the third set was as stirring as it got. Even as his game finally started to disintegrate, the Japanese player bounced from point to point. With Sampras it was serve, volley, lope. Serve, grimace, lope. Sit down. Lope.

It may be sad - and it makes you wonder why Wimbledon still calls it the Gentlemen's Singles - but it just isn't cool to be clean. Not for Sampras the headscarves and armbands which other leading players seem to use simply as extra advertising sites. And when he did, eventually, allow a small knot of vocal supporters a smile, he seemed to have surprised even himself.

By then, he was serving for the match, two points from a victory which had long been a question of when rather than if. A true champion, he played poorly and won, despite both serves and volleys regularly drifting wide or long.

The applause was warm, but hardly ecstatic. Sampras waved, turned and departed for the locker-room with as much of a spring in his step as he had shown all afternoon. None at all. And if Sampras on-court seemed short on personality, so, too, did the off-court image in the post-match interview. At first. Questions about his poor serving, his slow start, Pancho Gonzales, all received a blocked return.

But then, without warning, Sampras cut loose. Smiles, laughs, a dig at British television - "it puts me to sleep". Whisper it quietly, but he actually seemed to be enjoying himself.

He saved the best for last. What about those rather mean-spirited remarks he was reported to have made about Greg Rusedski, after sending the "British" No 1 packing with the minimum of fuss on Monday?

Did he know that Britain's Davis Cup skipper had hit back with criticism of his own? The lob was up. Sampras took careful aim. "Who's the Davis Cup skipper?" He has never hit a cleaner smash.

So there is a cutting edge, after all, but who knows what might happen if he ever let it show on court. For one thing, the crowd might take him to their hearts, and that would never do.

Pete Sampras has now won 19 matches in a row at Wimbledon, on almost every occasion with the spectators pulling for his opponent. If he suddenly found them on his side, it would probably put him off his game.