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Sampras Lays out his Stylish Stall

June 26, 1992

IF you yearn for a Wimbledon champion exhibiting style and grace alongside an inevitable power game, then yearn for the crowning of Pete Sampras.

Sampras was the tennis player that every American mother wanted her daughter to marry. John McEnroe? He might be unbearably wild over dinner. Jim Courier? A fine player but liable to be a little dull. Andre Agassi? Time to put the house up for sale and drag the swooning offspring kicking and screaming from the neighbourhood.

But Sampras - he was cool, from the moment that in 1990, only 28 days past his 18th birthday, he became the youngest US Open champion, sweeping aside Ivan Lendl, McEnroe and Agassi in the process.

It is laughable that one frets over whether Jeremy Bates, at 30, can withstand British expectations after winning a couple of nondescript matches at Wimbledon. Alongside Sampras, Bates has not experienced enough pressure to inflate a bicycle tyre.

Former champions jostled to endorse his talents after Flushing Meadow. Fred Perry announced the coming of a future Wimbledon champion, then watched him win one match on grass in three years. Don Budge, Grand Slam winner in 1938, told him: "Pete, you're going to be the next Grand Slam champion and I'll be rooting for you."

What followed was a disturbing sequence of injuries and gathering doubts - to borrow America's favourite sporting phrase - about Sampras's "ability to focus". "My body is breaking down piece by piece," he said in San Diego last year. "Just think what I'll be like at 25." When he lost his US title to Courier he admitted: "It's kinda like the monkey is off my back."

At Wimbledon yesterday Sampras focused. Did he focus! If he wins 10 major titles he will never focus much better than this. His fellow American Scott Davis, demolished 61, 60, 62 in little more than an hour, predicted: "Pete can definitely give Courier a run for his money."

Sampras measures his first serve at an average of 120mph, judging by a brief altercation with the umpire which went: "You saw that serve fall out at 120mph?" Several, notably Ivanisevic, are slightly faster but nobody picks off the lines to such deadly effect. His second serve, which often kicks steeply, is virtually as effective, and his backhand yesterday approached perfection. When he occasionally hit the ball out, the suspicion was that he was experimenting with the impossible.

Although he was not inclined to stretch himself for ground-shots unless strictly necessary - this body has to last until the turn of the century - Sampras exhibited a remarkable fleet-footedness. If every player kissed the turf as lightly as he does, Wimbledon's grass courts would wear as slowly as carpet.

"I just got on a bit of a roll," said Sampras. "My attitude on grass in the past hasn't been that good. I've always felt it's a kind of equaliser whereas this year my return of serve has picked up a lot and I'm feeling good."

For Sampras an improved return of serve is his key to winning Wimbledon. Grass should suit him better than clay and he reached the quarter-finals of the French Open before losing to Agassi. Michael Stich, the defending champion, is his likely quarter-final opponent, and on this occasion the monkey will be crawling all over the German.


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