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Six-gun salute to Sampras

July 4, 1999

PETE SAMPRAS is entitled to be recognised as one of the great athletes of this vanishing 20th century. There will be those who question the right of a tennis player to be mentioned on the same page as Muhammad Ali or Pele. They are in urgent need of medication. Sampras's body was on Centre Court as he recorded his sixth Wimbledon victory in seven years yesterday but his spirit was far above.

A straight-sets victory over Andre Agassi, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, took Sampras level with Roy Emerson's record of 12 titles in Grand Slam events. Emerson will be an ex- record-holder very soon. Technically, Agassi is world No 1 this morning. But the computer that came up with that calculation is off with the electronic fairies.

In the first two sets especially, Sampras's game rose to a place where the rest of us will never go, except as dazzled voyeurs. It was sport as transcendence. And now many followers of the game will happily give up hope of ever seeing anything better on a tennis court.

There were 128 players in the men's singles a fortnight ago, and the other 126 must have shrivelled as they watched Sampras unravel his almost manically intense fellow American.

For a fortnight Agassi had borne the look of a prize-fighter who had just burst out of a gym ready to wreak havoc. For six matches, he did. Then this.

"I ran into a bus today," he said.

"This is probably the best I've played in many years," Sampras said. "Andre brings out the best in me. He elevates my tennis to a level that's phenomenal. I need to be at my best against him. If I'm not, it's a long day."

It took Sampras only 1 hr 54 min to break Agassi's winning sequence of 13 matches, stretching back last month's French Open in Paris. "If he always plays that way against me, I'm going to win two out of every 10," Agassi said.

Two is stretching it a bit. In this form, Sampras is able to levitate like Michael Jordan. He can cut, slice, drive, lob and volley expertly. Most of all, he can summon a champion's will to play better than he has all fortnight, to do what's necessary and meet each threat.

Time is running out for sport's lavishly rewarded quasi pop stars to demand inclusion in the century's absolute and unchallengeable elite. Sampras is definitely in. The only player to have won seven Wimbledon men's titles was a Corinthian called W C Renshaw in the 1880s. Sportsmen were so unheralded in those days that they had to make do with initials.

Agassi - who ought to know - thinks Sampras could win three or four more titles. Already, he has won 12 of the 14 Grand Slam finals he has contested.

The man has everything: most obviously, yesterday, that sacred capacity to crank up his own excellence so that even the most accomplished opponent feels as if he is trying to light a barbecue in a typhoon.

Agassi said it best: "I went out there expecting him to be a big pain in the ass. I knew he would play big in the biggest situations. He played some impeccable tennis at the important times. You've got to weather his storm. When you do that he's vulnerable, but his storm was too strong today."

The point is that Sampras's performance went way beyond what seems possible to the eye. If a measure of greatness is how many times one feels startled, astonished, bemused during a match, then the 24th meeting of Sampras and Agassi felt like a display of greatness in an event that has too often descended into an exposition of naked power.

These were the world's two best players, no doubt about that. Tim Henman now knows the length of the voyage to the top.

The first majestic rally fizzed into being in the fourth game of the first set, when both players began striking the ball with the kind of crispness and range that confirms each to be in exemplary form.

With his first break of serve, Sampras let out a yelp. Agassi had been bustling around the All England Club as if he had been sticking his fingers in an unearthed socket. Towel, ball, towel, ball: he and the ballboy who kept him in weapons and wipedowns were starting to become best friends. But then Sampras's brilliance began to take hold, and Agassi's pigeon-toed swagger began to apply itself to the less glamorous business of retrieval.

Sampras won the first set 6-3 and broke his compatriot again in the first game of the second. "He knows he can make great things happen in a minute and a half," Agassi said. He saved another two break points in the second set but lost that one too, 6-4.

"Remember the French Open," someone cried, but this was not Andrei Medvedev in the other half of the court (Agassi came back from two sets down to win in Paris). Nostradamus would have had to have been right for Agassi to get anything out of this match (even then it would have been a draw).

At 1-2 and 15-all in the second set, he provided one of those images that will endure to the end of the next century as a portrait of psychic distress. Agassi hit a fierce backhand cross-court shot that would have beaten any of those other 126 players in the original draw. But Sampras took off horizontally, met the ball in mid-air in the meat of the racket, and cushioned a return that fell like a raindrop on the other side of the net. Agassi looked as if he had been sprayed with liquid nitrogen.

Frozen, disbelieving, he started at the spot where Sampras had played the winner and finally looked to his corner for reassurance that he hadn't gone mad. It happened, all right.

Sampras finished him off with two aces to take a 3-1 lead and start soaring towards the end of the match.

There was a time not long ago when Agassi was in danger of resembling his home town of Las Vegas: decadent, overfed, a mirage. This year, though, he has come roaring back: an artist and a warrior capable of destroying Patrick Rafter in straight sets. Agassi, only the fifth man to win all four Grand Slams, must have felt his own hyper-intensity was carrying him unstoppably through. But the greater the velocity, the harder the crash.

Agassi was more threatening in the third set but found himself trying to retrieve two break points again at 5-5. The game was lost with a timid backhand into the net and from there, Sampras had only to serve out for the match. He won it, typically, with a shot that has never been seen in the parks. An ace on his second serve.

All this, remember, in a year when Sampras has played less tennis with less success than usual. When he pulled out of this year's Australian Open, citing fatigue, he had competed in 27 consecutive Grand Slams. Ah, the fire was dimming. Ha, ha. "I'm still spinning a bit. I'm still a little overwhelmed by what I've done," he said. It was not the sixth Wimbledon or the 12th Grand Slam that had him turning. It was the fresh, cold memory of how sublimely he had played.