Wimbledon `97: Pioline recovers to end another German era

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Pete Sampras has defeated Cedric Pioline in each of their previous seven matches. This does not augur well for Pioline's prospects of becoming the first Frenchman to win the singles title since 1946, when Yvon Petra was the last champion to wear long trousers.

However, if Pioline performs even half as well as he did in completing Michael Stich's farewell to Wimbledon last evening, we can at least look forward to a contest.

Pioline's parents met at a volleyball match, both being players of a high standard. While this hardly qualifies their son to trade shots with the world No 1 tomorrow, it does suggest that he is not afraid to go to the net.

Stich discovered this to his cost, narrowly failing to complete the arrangements for a farewell party in the final. In fact Pioline was full of surprises for the German, serving so well that Stich considered it a treat to be ankle to take him to deuce, and returning with consistency and conviction.

Still, it was close enough, the Frenchman winning, 6-7, 6-2, 6-1, 5-,7, 6-4, after nearly three hours. So, the evening after Sampras retired Becker, Pioline closed the Doherty Gates on the second most successful German male in the history of the sport.

The crowd rose to roar their approval of both Pioline and Stich at the end of the duel, although it must be said that the 1991 champion tested the patience with his surly behaviour at certain points of the match - i.e., those points which went against him on close calls.

By the finish, however, the passion of the contest won everyone over.

There was a small historic moment on the Centre Court yesterday. Sampras's serve was broken by Australia's Todd Woodbridge, a feat last performed by Sweden's Mikael Tillstrom in the first round, many rain delays ago.

Life has changed dramatically in SW19 since Tillstrom experienced that ray of hope in the fourth game. Two British men have appeared and disappeared in the quarter-finals, Boris Becker has taken his farewell bows, Martina Hingis has become the youngest finalist since Lottie Dod, and Sampras has enjoyed a sequence of 97 games without being broken.

Woodbridge brought Sampras's run to a close as a gesture of defiance before the American marked Independence Day by securing a place in the final, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6, after an hour and 45 minutes.

The Australian's break came immediately after he had lost his own serve to trail 1-2 in the third set. His reward was to force a tie-break, which Sampras won, 7-3, with the flourish of a service winner off a second serve.

For most of the match, Woodbridge appeared to be lacking something on his backhand side. It transpired to be the forehand of his doubles-partner, Mark Woodforde, who was watching from the stands. Together, they form the sport's most successful duo, but Woodbridge was able to make little impression on the world No 1 as a solo act.

Were one needed, yesterday's match would have served as a timely reminder of Sampras's evolution as a Wimbledon champion, a three-times winner about to contest his fourth final in five years.

Sampras made his debut on the lawns of the All England Club in 1989. His compatriot, Michael Chang, had just become the youngest male to win a Grand Slam singles title, aged 17 years and three months, at the French Open.

Although roughly the same age as Chang, Sampras appeared less mature at the time. Although nobody doubted that had the attacking style to succeed on grass courts, he lacked confidence in his service returns on the surface.

His first match was against Woodbridge, a year older, the Australian taking advantage of Sampras's uncertainty, winning, 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-3.

They met at Wimbledon a second time in 1992. Sampras, a winner of the United States Open title two years earlier, had raised the level of his grass-court game sufficiently to overcome Woodbridge in four sets in the second game, en route to his first appearance in the semi-finals.

Since then, Sampras's only Wimbledon defeat has been against Richard Krajicek in the quarter-finals last year.

Well though Woodbridge had played to reach the last eight, particularly in denying his compatriot Pat Rafter in the fourth round, he was comprensively outplayed by Sampras on this occasion.

Many people will expect a similar fate to befall Pioline. The 28-year- old from Paris is unseeded, ranked No 44 in the world, and would appear to be the closest sacrificial equivalent to the New Zealander Chris Lewis, who was blown away by John McEnroe in 1983. The season has been filled with surprises, and although Pioline has the game to test Sampras, it is doubtful that he can cause a major shock.