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Just Call him St. Pete: Sampras wins fourth Wimbledon Championship

July 7, 1997

WIMBLEDON, England -- As Pete Sampras grows more fearless, his peers can't help but grow more fearful that, for the near future at least, Sampras means to keep the Grand Slam tournament titles to himself. They are the prizes he most cherishes and fights most fervently to claim.

Sampras won his fourth Wimbledon title Sunday, dispatching Cedric Pioline of France, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, in 95 minutes.

Sampras, 25, now has 10 Grand Slam tournament titles,two behind Roy Emerson's record. With his focus narrowed almost solely to the four major events, the resolute Sampras may claim that record by this time next year. Sampras won the Australian Open in January and is the defending U.S. Open champion.

Asked after the match to survey the tennis scene and assess what in the game he fears, Sampras frankly saw nothing. "I really have no fear in the game," Sampras said. "I feel if I'm playing well, I'm tough to beat. I've got some options out there. I can stay back or come in, and to serve as well as I have these past couple of weeks, I'm going to be tough to beat because when I'm confident and playing well, that's it for me."

That's it for everyone else. Sampras' serving fuels his confidence, drives his game and sets in motion a relentless chain of events opponents find overwhelming. As his serving improves, Sampras volleys better, and when that happens he grows more relaxed. A loose and confident Sampras is highly dangerous, as he has shown here.

From the first round to the semifinals, Sampras went 97 consecutive service games without being broken. He held 116 of 118 service games during the tournament.

Sampras' serve Sunday was no less lethal. He lost only 17 points against his serve and faced only one break point. It's not just about velocity. Sampras was able to place his serve where he wanted to, and his 17 aces would surely have been multiplied against a player with less ability to return serve.

Pioline gets the ball back over the net, and in earlier rounds he had defeated two of the game's best servers: Greg Rusedski and Michael Stich. But even above-average ability isn't good enough when Sampras fires as he did during Sunday's match on cool and partly sunny Centre Court. "I don't know what happened with my serve, to tell the truth," Sampras said. "They just clicked in every match I had. It was the shot that won me the tournament. This is the best I've ever served in my career."

Sampras' serves made the match seem more brutally one-sided than it was, though really there was about all of the competitive suspense that a Wimbledon final between the No. 1 and No. 44 players in the world might have suggested. Unseeded Pioline had no chance.

"When you play Pete, he doesn't give you air -- you know, you cannot breathe against him because he's serving so big and returning so good," Pioline said. "When he gets the break, he's serving even better because he doesn't want to give you a chance to come back."

Pioline hurt his cause by losing his serve in the third game of the first set. Sampras fired an ace to gain set point and, when Pioline sent a backhand return long, Sampras had the first set in 36 minutes.

Pioline held serve to open the second set, then Sampras responded with second-serve ace, ace, service winner, ace. Sampras broke in the fifth game when Pioline dumped a forehand volley into the net. Pioline's volley was not at the level he maintained against Stich in the semifinals, but Sampras was passing well. Sampras was accurate from the baseline, committing only eight unforced errors. Sampras broke again in the seventh game and held to serve out the set.

Pioline played Sampras to his first two deuces in the second game of the third set, but each time Sampras fired an ace to get out of trouble. He broke in the third game and held to take a 3-1 lead. Pioline got his first break point in the eighth game, aided by a rare double fault by Sampras. Sampras held, as did Pioline in the next game. Fittingly, Sampras served out the match, punctuating his victory with a service winner on championship point.

Sampras allowed himself a mild celebratory moment on court, and afterward gave voice to his pride in his accomplishment.

"To have won 10 by the age of 25, I never really thought that would happen," Sampras said, allowing himself to sound impressed. "This is what's going to keep me in the game for a lot of years: the major tournaments. I put so much pressure on myself to do well here and at the other majors. It makes it all worth it, all the hard work I put into the game."

A coda to Sampras' comments: Emerson won his 12th Grand Slam tournament title at 30 and during an era when three of the four majors were contested on grass.

How many would Sampras -- the best grasscourt player of is generation -- have won if he had three times the opportunity?



Sampras Is Grand Again
American's fourth title at Wimbledon

July 7, 1997

Wimbledon, England -- It was a day for French impressionists, not French tennis players.

Fluffy mashed-potato clouds floated over Centre Court yesterday afternoon, playing hide-and- seek with the sun, providing beautiful and constantly changing background scenery, begging for a Monet or Renoir.

But on the court, the art was American gothic, the work executed in flashing, bold, realistic strokes, not little dibs and dabs.

Pete Sampras had his mojo working, his killer serve, and France's Cedric Pioline might as well have been waving at Pistol Pete's pitches with a sourdough baguette.

Sampras won his fourth Wimbledon title in five years, and his 10th Grand Slam tournament, with a 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 cruise over the gallant (he stayed for the entire match) but grossly outclassed Pioline.

"There's something that just clicks on,'' Sampras said after his brisk 94-minute workout. "You're relaxed and my tennis just took over.''

Sounds easy, and it looked easier.

"I served and volleyed about as well as I've ever served and volleyed in my career,'' he said. "I don't know what happened with the serves, to tell you the truth. They just clicked for every match. It was the shot that won me the tournament.''

Pioline, ranked No. 44 in the world, career winner of two minor tournaments, and 0-7 lifetime against Sampras, figured to be a tomato can.

And he was, and you had to wonder how Sampras got so pumped up for this one. Maybe he fantasized that the guy on the other side of the net was the old Andre Agassi.

But Sampras now isn't mowing down opponents; he's clawing his way up the stepladder of tennis history.

His fourth Wimbledon title moves him into a seven-man neighborhood, topped by William Renshaw (1881-89) with nine Wimby wins. Sampras' 10th Grand Slammer puts him in a five-man club, tied with Bill Tilden and two back of Roy Emerson.

The way Sampras blazed through Wimbledon, it's hard to imagine this is the same guy who has been beaten in his past six tournaments, dating to March.

He has lost to people named Jonas Bjorkman, Magnus Larsson and Bohdan Ulihrach.

But this is Grand Slam Sampras, who sets his alarm clock for the ones that really count, and for these two weeks has been all but untouchable.

While some experts were trying to give Pioline a ghost of a chance, the tea-sipping hipsters on Centre Court knew better than to expect a tennis match to break out. The faintest glimmer came in the second game of the third set, when Sampras double-faulted.

It was the first sign that he might be playing the same sport as Pioline. Alas, moments later Sampras slashed the outside line of Pioline's service box with an ace, slashed the inside line with another ace, and surgically closed out the game with a service winner.

"Yes, he's playing very good,'' Pioline said, "but I mean, it's not God.''

God doesn't double-fault. But if Pioline was unwilling to wax poetic about Sampras, to place him among the all-time greats, at least Cedric was not in complete denial.

"It's normal to be tight when you play that kind of match,'' Pioline said, "and especially when you play Pete, because he doesn't give you air, you know, you cannot breathe against him because he's serving big and he's returning good.''

There's more to Sampras' game than the serve, and for sheer horsepower, he doesn't have nearly the biggest boomer in tennis. In this tournament, his first serve was usually around 127 mph, and that makes him no higher than fifth in the octane ratings.

But his command of serve was way too much for the field. In his seven Wimbledon matches Pistol Pete served 121 games and was broken twice. His ace-to-double- fault ratio was phenomenal: 119 to 15.

Yesterday Sampras faced one break point, in the eighth game, after his second double-fault.

But three big serves and a couple slice volleys restored order, and the only remaining suspense was whether the Duke and Duchess of Kent, said to be splitsville, would appear together for the trophy presentation. (They did, but weren't holding hands.)

Sampras smiled pleasantly for the royalty and the cameras when it was over, but during the match he was as serious and relentless as a bricklayer getting paid by the row.

No quirks or stalls or tricks from Pete. Before every first serve he takes two balls, makes a millisecond comparison and dribbles the reject back to the ballkid. Other players keep a spare for the second serve, but Sampras packs light.

When his game is in tune, the sheer methodical, emotion-free relentlessness must be daunting to his opponents.

"Once the first point starts,'' Sampras said, "you just kind of get into the mind-set and the routine that you've done this for so many years, that it's all just muscle memory, and it just goes, and it's something that just clicks on at a certain time.''

Sampras was blazing out of the starting blocks in just about every match this tournament. Yesterday he won his first 11 service points and broke Pioline in the third game of the first set, and a BBC announcer described Pioline's countenance, with only a bit of exaggeration, as a "horrified gaze.''

It wasn't just the Sampras serve.

"His touch shots are in good nick,'' the BBC announcer noted, and he saluted Sampras' "brutal reply'' -- his return of serve.

In short, the whole package. A hunger to win the big ones, the nerve to withstand the pressure, the killer instinct to hammer a lesser foe, and the strokes.




No contest as Pioline is crushed by power of Sampras

July 7, 1997

THERE were plenty of things Pete Sampras could have said to Cedric Pioline after blasting him away in straight sets in 94 minutes. He could have remarked upon the theatrical qualities of the Centre Court, asked him how his family was or offered him another set to pass a bit more time. The best and most accurate thing he could have said, though, was: "Sorry. I hope you get well soon," writes Paul Hayward

It was easy to understand why Sampras failed to throw himself to the ground and scream at the heavens, as many Wimbledon winners do. That would have implied that he was emotionally drained, or had come close to breaking sweat. Even before the match it was hard to imagine a man called Cedric winning anything grander than a regional tax inspector of the month award. After it, you wanted to put your house on Sampras breaking Bjorn Borg's open-era record of five Wimbledon singles titles.

At 25, Sampras has now won four Wimbledon championships and 10 Grand Slam events. Three more and he will hold the record. Alarmingly for his ever-growing list of frazzled victims, Sampras says he is only "halfway through" his career. "Jimmy Connors was still winning majors when he was in his early 30s," he said. "As long as I'm playing well, working hard and staying healthy there's no reason why I can't play at this level for many years."

We can forget about the Centre Court being a citadel of Englishness, with floppy hats, Robinson's Barley Water and an artistically parched lawn. Its other side is a vision of hell in which people fall into eternal flames. After her defeat by Martina Hingis in the women's final, Jana Novotna seems destined to be the recipient of such agonies. Sampras's victory over Pioline, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, was as brutal as it was brilliant. They should have given Pioline another go, on the grounds that he was clearly not ready first time round.

Pioline, whose wife, Mireille, made her first, and probably last, visit to England to see her husband demolished, joins Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic and Jim Courier in the list of Sampras's Wimbledon conquests. Pioline, or what was left of him, did manage a lap of honour clutching a silver plate that would have been better employed as body armour. His serve was broken as early as the third game of the match. "From there I was running after the score," he said, summoning an improvisational quality in his speech that was mostly absent in his play.

In the year of the non-seeds, Pioline was the L'Etranger, the 100-1 outsider who, at the end of a doubtless enjoyable and profitable fortnight, ran into the whirlwind of Sampras's talent. Throughout the tournament Sampras dropped his own serve only twice. He dropped a game in his first-round match against Mikael Tillstrom and then went 96 service games before losing the second, against Todd Woodbridge. The gap between him and the rest was so big it was cruel. And cruelty never seemed so good.

It is wonderful that Sampras should be this superior. The Centre Court crowd may feel it a pity that he had to be this superior on men's final day, when the climax of the championship is supposed to throw up something resembling a contest. It was the same last year, when Richard Krajicek charged through MaliVai Washington in straight sets. No oohs and aahs in the nation's sitting rooms, then. Just silence and wonderment and a resigned trudge back to the weekend jobs.

In the first set it was Sampras's third service game before Pioline managed a point against the serve. In set two, Pioline handed Sampras the first of two breaks by mis-hitting four backhand volleys, one wide and three into the net. The first two sets were won in 62 minutes. When Sampras made his first bad mistake, he walked off the court and changed his racket. Only broken machinery was capable of lowering his standards.

If it sounds, also, as if Pioline was inept, none of us non-combatants can comprehend what it is must be like to face Sampras's endlessly scorching serves, his ferocious returns to an opponent rushing optimistically into the net. And on the Centre Court, with millions of people watching. Getting to one of his first serves is quite an accomplishment. Getting it back over the net should carry some sort of United Nations award.

The purists will remember it as an unusually important weekend, both for the emergence of Hingis as champion at 16 years of age and what it said - or confirmed - about Sampras. His body and will were in perfect harmony. It was a marvel to watch his feet plant themselves, his head remain still, the kinetic energy of his body load itself for transmission down the metal wand of his racket. This was not a match. It was an exhibition.

"This is what it's all about. The major titles," said Sampras later. "This is what's going to keep me in the game for a lot of years. The only match I struggled in was the one against [Petr] Korda. I lost my serve only twice and I served and volleyed as well as I have in my career. I'm really pumped."

Inevitably the subject of Sampras's sober on-court demeanour raised itself. It always does. He said: "I know I'm not Dave Letterman when it comes to interviews, but the way I am on court is the way I've been my whole life, and it's the way I'll continue to be - very much to myself, a lot like Borg was. Concentrating and focused.

"I don't plan on changing for anybody, because it's who I am."


Top-seeded Sampras breezes through final

July 7, 1997

WIMBLEDON, England - History is Pete Sampras' only competitor. Four Wimbledons. Ten Grand Slams. Virtually no one in the way of more to come. His rivals these days are all retired - Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson.

Cedric Pioline, chasing aces and groping after groundstrokes, certainly could do nothing Sunday to stop Sampras as he put the finishing touch on a tournament he dominated like no other in his sterling career.

It wasn't just the score, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, or the time, a mere minutes, or even the ace count, 17, against Pioline that distinguished this Wimbledon from all of Sampras' other major championships.

It was the way he put together the whole package of his skills - the serve that was broken only twice in 118 games over two weeks, the backhand returns that dispirited Pioline and everyone else, and the speed with which Sampras raced to the net.

"I don't know what happened with the serves, to tell you the truth,'' Sampras said of his amazing consistency from first match to final. "They just clicked for every match I played. It was the shot that won me the tournament.

"In order to win here, you need to return, and that was also a great shot. I was hitting and passing quite well. But this is the best I think I've ever served in my career.''

Sampras, getting better with age at 25, is changing one of the basic elements of tennis. He's so quick to the net with his big strides that he no longer hits approach shots, even when he's receiving. As he did so many times against Pioline, Sampras crushes returns with his backhand, gets to the net, and waits to slap away volleys - if the ball comes back.

In a final devoid of drama, or even the comic relief of a streaker like last year, Sampras broke Pioline early in each set. After a typically brutal backhand return that flew past Pioline for a break to 2-1, Sampras fairly skipped off court with long, loping strides like a big kid in the playground.

This is where Sampras shows his personality, and if it is muted compared to the likes of Andre Agassi or John McEnroe, he couldn't care less.

"I know I'm not Dave Letterman when it comes to interviews,'' Sampras said. "But the way I am on the court is the way I've been my whole life, and it's the way I'll continue to be. Very much to myself and a lot like Borg was. "That's why when Andre and I were competing, he was the one who had the emotion. And McEnroe was Borg's rival. That's what the game needs right now. But I don't plan on changing for anybody because that's who I am.''

He held serve at love three times in the first set, and yielded a total of only four points in his two other service games that set. In the second set, he went one better, dropping just three points on serve. The only time Sampras found himself even close to trouble was in the third set, when he double-faulted and faced his only break point of the match in the eighth game. He quickly snuffed out that threat with two service winners and a volley that gave him a 5-3 lead.

Pioline staved off defeat for a few moments with the help of his 13th ace. Sampras then put him out of his misery with a service winner on match point that he celebrated by raising his hands and placing his fist on his heart as he faced his new girlfriend, actress Kimberly Williams.

Pioline, the first Frenchman in the Wimbledon final since Yvon Petra won in 1946, played well enough to beat almost anyone, or at least give them a good match. Against Sampras, who has now beaten him in all eight of their meetings, including the 1993 U.S. Open final, Pioline was simply outclassed.

"He's playing very good, but he's not God,'' said Pioline. True enough, but
no mortal could have served better.

Sampras is as much a student of tennis history as he is a maker of it. He knows his place among the game's greats, and what he must do to be considered the best.

His 10 major titles tied him with Bill Tilden for the most by an American, and he trails only Borg and Laver (11 each) and Emerson (12). The one gap in Sampras' trophy chest is the French Open, and he would dearly love to fill that. But even if some would refuse to call him the best because of his lack of success on clay, he's building a good case for that claim with all his other triumphs.

"To have won 10 by the age of 25, I never really thought that would happen,'' said Sampras, who captured the Australian Open title in January. "This is what's going to keep me in the game, I hope, for a lot of years - the major tournaments.''

Winning his 10th major boosted Sampras' hopes of adding No. 11 at the U.S. Open in two months and closing in on the record.

"It just makes me feel that 12 is something that's so much more realistic, that I can break the record. So to be put into the same sentence as a Laver and those guys ... you can't have a more flattering comparison. This is what's important to me.''

Sampras matched the Wimbledon total of Laver, his childhood hero, and only Borg's five straight (1976-80) is better in the modern era. The Wimbledon record is seven titles by William Renshaw in the 1880s.

"I don't like thinking of myself in terms of history,'' said Sampras, who won $697,000 to hike his career earnings to $27.1 million. "I feel like I'm still in the middle of my career and it's not over yet.''

What's most important, he said, is his longevity in the game.

"I'm going to keep on playing until there comes a day where I feel like I'm not going to be in contention for slams,'' he said. "That will be the day that I'll stop. I have a lot of respect for what Boris (Becker) did, but I am nowhere near that day.''

Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company



Wimbledon commentary: Sampras might be best ever

July 7, 1997

WIMBLEDON, England - Quick, somebody, get the man a rival. A foil. An enemy. A villain. Get him a Wilt Chamberlain for his Bill Russell, a Pharaoh to his Moses, a Lex Luthor to his Superman. Otherwise, Pete Sampras, the greatest tennis player we have ever seen, might skip over our horizon without anyone realizing what a remarkable talent he is.

He won his fourth Wimbledon title yesterday, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, in less time than it takes to play the first half of a football game. Straight sets. Never surrendered his serve. The reaction at Centre Court? I think I caught the Duke of Kent nodding off.

Four Wimbledons puts Sampras, 25, ahead of John McEnroe, Boris Becker and John Newcombe, and if you add those jewels to his four U.S. Open and two Australian Open crowns . . . well, let's cut to the chase: Three more Grand Slam titles, and Sampras will rank, trophy-wise, as the best there ever was.

The best there ever was. Read that again. The best there ever was. I'm repeating it because they don't say that about too many people. Yet when they say it about Sampras, it seems to drip off his back like water off a British umbrella.

"He leaves you no air to breathe," said the man he vanquished yesterday, Cedric Pioline of France, who had as much chance of victory as he did of turning a croissant into a tuna.

(Besides, and I don't mean to digress here, but it's pretty hard to get behind a guy named Cedric. Hearing fans yell, "You da man, Cedric!" just didn't cut it.)

But back to his comment about Sampras. He leaves you no air to breathe. That's pretty impressive coming from an opponent, no? So why did so many fans leave Wimbledon with an empty feeling, as if they'd run out of cream before they'd run out of strawberries?

Well, consider the drama of the match. You want me to skip to the highlight? I mean the real heart-thumping moment? Here it is. Third set. Break point for Pioline. That's to break one game of Sampras' serve. Not to win the match. Not to win a set. Just to break his serve.

And it didn't happen. Sampras - who later confessed to a momentary lapse in concentration (perhaps he was trying to remember whom he was playing) - stormed back with two service winners and an easy volley winner.

Danger over.

Let's face it, Sampras had a run for the ages at this Wimbledon. He blistered everyone he played. He lost only two games on his serve, and more than half of his serves never got returned. And people shrugged it off?

This proves Sampras needs a regular enemy, if only to give a measuring stick for his excellence. Jimmy Connors had Bjorn Borg, and Borg had McEnroe. Ali had Frazier, the Lakers had the Celtics. But for his four Wimbledon titles, Sampras has beaten four different players.

"In the United States, you do need a rivalry," he said. "When you have one, people who don't follow tennis will follow it. Two times in my career, I thought I had some real rivalries kicking up. Once against Boris, and once against (Andre) Agassi.

"But it's so difficult in the 1990s. There are so many great players, and the game is so much deeper. It's hard to have the same people coming through all the time."

But if Sampras can do it, why can't someone else? Becker and Stefan Edberg met in three straight Wimbledon finals from 1988-90. McEnroe, Borg and Connors - in some combination - met five times in six years for the title from 1977-82.

And you remember those guys more. It isn't - as some critics say - Sampras' deadly serious personality. It isn't that he fails to throw tantrums or that, as he said, "I'm not David Letterman during interviews."

Hey, Borg was as boring as they come. But he had McEnroe to contrast him. Edberg was as stoic as grass, but Becker's emotion helped shade him.

"That's why when Andre and I are competing, it works," Sampras said. "He's the flamboyant, emotional one, and I can be me."

Of course, Agassi - who has met Sampras three times in Grand Slam finals, by far the closest contemporary Sampras has had - bagged out of Wimbledon again this year. He's either too hurt, too distracted, too in love or too nuts to be consistent. It's not Sampras' fault that history gave him a head case for a challenger.

"Do you ever see yourself changing the way you are on the court?" a Brit asked him. "You know, playing with more emotion yourself?"

"Well," Sampras said, "my way has worked so far."

Say that again. Sampras is not only a model of laser-like focus, he's fluid in all strokes.

It wasn't just serving that won him Wimbledon. He hit passing shots that kicked up chalk on the baseline, and he came to the net brilliantly. On one memorable play yesterday, Pioline had Sampras running and smacked a forehand down the line. Sampras had no business getting to it, but he lunged - pure instinct - and the ball shot almost horizontally across the court for a winner.

"Sometimes," Sampras said of that play, "your muscle memory takes over."

Muscle memory? You mean his body does that on its own? No wonder Becker quit Wimbledon for good after losing to Sampras in the quarterfinals, saying he could no longer compete with the likes of Sampras.

Given the way Sampras is going, the shock isn't that Becker retired, but that more players didn't.

Oh well, as they say in England, there you have it. Thus ends another Wimbledon fortnight, one in which familiar patterns repeated: It rained, players whined, and it all managed to finish on time, as usual, with yet another teenage sensation capturing the women's title - Martina Hingis - and Sampras going home with the big trophy once more.

The only thing lacking is what I've been suggesting, a rival for Sampras, because he truly is as wonderful a player as there has been. Strong, fast, resilient, intense. In fact, it is only because he is as great as he is, and we need to do whatever it takes to show it, that I would even dare ask the following question:

Does Dennis Rodman play tennis?