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Sampras joy finds healthy focal point

July 2, 1992

In the harsh arithmetic of Wimbledon's celebrity cycles, Michael Stich, the defending champion, returned to obscurity yesterday. Into his light of public recognition walked a 20-year-old American who has been as revered by the purists as he has been underestimated by the bookmakers. Make way for Pete Sampras.

It has mattered not to many architects of the Wimbledon hierarchy that in 1990 Sampras was the youngest winner of a US Open at 19 years and 28 days. The preferred argument has been that in three visits to the grass arenas, Fred Perry's big tip for the future had won only one match, so that while Stich was the 4-7 favourite for their meeting on the Centre Court yesterday, Sampras was a lavish looking 5-4, 10-1 for the tournament.

Within half an hour that assessment of Sampras's chance was looking as accurate as Stich's groundstrokes. Boris Becker's kinsman was resolved to play the Jurgen Klinsmann of German tennis, exacerbating his lack of early rhythm by disputing decisions, groaning skywards and tumbling around the court as if expecting a cry of ''penalty'' from the umpire. It never came, as Sampras crashed through Stich's peevishness.

So much for the mystery man. You recalled, as he drove back Stich's serves, that it was not until the third round that Sampras was asked to attend a press conference of any significance, and that even then the ceremony was closer to a fireside chat than the grilling of a potential champion. Little is known about Sampras's life away from tennis, and the body of knowledge was not expanded yesterday when a newsdigger asked, in effect, ''What's your girlfriend called?''

The terse reply to that question brought only the briefest interruption to a stream of confident pronouncements. ''To beat him in straight sets is good for my body. I'm extremely confident. I mean, I'm in the semi-finals now and anything can happen. I feel really good about the way I'm playing.''

Good for his body? At first it sounded like a teeth-chattering Americanism, but then the realisation set in that Sampras and his 20-year-old body - as yet uncelebrated by the floating female fan clubs - have been taken to the perimeters of physical endurance.

In Atlanta this year he played with ''chronic elbow pain''. In Memphis he suffered a hamstring pull and was forced to withdraw. In the Australian Open his shoulder played up (the year before, shin splints ruined his chance). The injury record also shows sore hip muscles, a ruptured right calf and blisters. His periods of being fit, then sidelined, he said had become ''kind of like night and day''.

The US Open-winning season staggered to a wretched end. ''I played a little too much and, by the end of the year, my body kind of broke down,'' Sampras said. Then, a few months later, a diagnosis that many young footballers will recognise: ''My body is breaking down piece by piece. It doesn't look very positive with my being injured as much as I am at 19. Just think what I'll be like when I'm 24 or 25.''

Little wonder, then, that his parents, Georgia and Sam, can hardly bear to watch him play (on US Open final day, his father went for a run and discovered the result by asking a neighbour). Sampras's awareness of the destructive force of illness has also produced constructive action. After winning the Grand Slam Cup, he donated $ 250,000 ( pounds 130,000) of his $ 2m prize-money to charities fighting cerebral palsy, the disease which killed two of his father's sisters.

As he vindicated Perry's judgment on court, and then sat up on the inquest podium, all youth and health, Sampras was moving into the mainstream of Wimbledon candidates. ''I don't think he Stich thought I was going to play this well,'' Sampras said, expounding a theory that Stich later confirmed by calling it Sampras's ''greatest game on grass''.

Stich had cause to consider Sampras's summary of his own defeat in the quarter-finals of the 1991 US Open. There, Sampras had expressed relief at being relieved of the title ''defending champion'' (and was heavily criticised for his remarks). ''The monkey is off my back,'' Sampras had said.

No longer, from yesterday, is the monkey on Stich.


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