Wimbledon 98: `Pistol Pete' keeps firing

Richard Edmondson sees the world No 1 show few signs of weakness despite apparent portents of a loss of form
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The Independent Online
PETE SAMPRAS started on Centre Court at 3.21 on Saturday before a crowd which had been told his motivation had left and taken with it his serving prowess as a travelling companion.

The American consequently delivered a game of aces. In fact, it was not until Sampras' fourth service game that his opponent, Thomas Enqvist, actually managed to get a ball back in play. "Pistol Pete", it seems, is not quite yet the faded gunslinger slumped at the saloon bar over a glass of redeye.

It will surprise those who watch tennis for just a fortnight a year though to learn that Sampras has not won a Grand Slam since he embarrassed Cedric Pioline in the final here 12 months ago. His Slam total stands at 10, one fewer than Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver, his boyhood idol, and two behind Roy Emerson, who, in retirement, is proving as difficult to pass as he was in competitive life.

Sampras prefers grass to clay, the quick kill of a duel in the morning mist rather than a game of chess. A recent demise at Stade Roland Garros, his ninth failure in the French Open, was therefore fairly predictable. It did, however, offer drops of blood into the water for the circling fins of his rivals.

"He's not winning too much and I think he's about the 10th-ranked player at the moment. He hasn't done too well in the Slams, so yes, he is struggling," Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, says. "Maybe he is not as motivated as he normally is. If he starts saying that some tournaments are not as important it is a sign that his motivation is not as high. So this is a very big tournament of the year for him. If he doesn't do well here it is going to be very difficult to keep the No1 spot."

Sampras, who resumes against Enqvist at 6-3, 5-5 today, is rather less worried about his desire. "This is obviously the biggest tournament we have in the game and if you can't get up for an event like this then you shouldn't be playing," he says. "This place, over the years, has brought out the best in me and you get a little more keyed up and fired up going out there at 2.00 on Monday. I'm very keyed up for this event. I've had a lot of good memories playing here and hopefully I can recapture my form here."

When you draw a line down the middle of the page and list Pete Sampras' attributes and then his weaknesses the design begins to look like a motorway. Everything seems to be piled up your left-hand side, while the other lane is almost completely free. But Sampras is more a Roundhead than a Cavalier, a winning automaton. He is admired rather than embraced at Wimbledon because you can't love a machine.

Off court he is charm itself, a man so trustworthy and kind you could leave your budgie with him if you went on holiday. The active Sampras has a little more malice. "You are thinking about taking your opponent's heart out," he says when discussing his court mood. "You squeeze it until all the blood comes out, even the very last drop, and you have won."

As he trails a fifth title here, Sampras has shown all his old hegemony. He treats the loss of a set like the loss of a finger. The champion does not give them away lightly: in 1993 he lost four, then just one the following year, six in 1995 and three last year. In his two matches thus far this time around he is yet to drop a set. Against Dominik Hrbaty and Mikael Tillstrom his serve has been surrendered just once, and, in the process, he has sent down a massive 36 aces.

So the old lion, contrary to the jungle telegraph, does not yet look ready to leave the pride. As he crashed away on Centre Court on Saturday, the billowing smoke from an overlooking flat seemed an appropriate symbol. It reminded of the beacons our ancestors used to light when the most feared of foreign visitors had arrived.