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Sampras Overpowers Agassi for 6th Title

July 4, 1999

Wimbledon, England -- You got the feeling Pete Sampras felt alone with that trophy, even as polite applause swirled around Centre Court and the British royalty served pomp with their circumstance. Sampras has always been alone, in essence, and now he shares his solitude with history.

Sampras is the champion who never has been fully embraced, by the press or the British public or the casual American fan. Occasionally he resents the indifference, but mostly he doesn't care. Sampras' greatest friends are in his trophy case, and after yesterday's 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 dismantling of Andre Agassi in the Wimbledon final, he is truly a man for the record books.

With his 12th Grand Slam title, Sampras joined Australian great Roy Emerson as the all-time leaders. With his sixth Wimbledon title, he became the first man this century to make that claim (one W.C. Renshaw won seven in the 1880s). He's 6-for-6 in Wimbledon finals and 12-2 in Grand Slam finals, a winning percentage better than Laver, Borg, Tilden or anyone else.

``And when he's playing this well on grass,'' Agassi said yesterday, ``nobody's going to beat him.''

This was a finals doubleheader strangely devoid of tension or emotion -- fitting for a Fourth of July on British soil -- but they were cheering like hell in Southern California. It was quite enough to have Wimbledon's first American-born sweep since John McEnroe and Chris Evert in 1981. Sampras and women's champion Lindsay Davenport are from the same town, for heaven's sake, having both grown up in the pleasant beachside community of Palos Verdes (Los Angeles County).

Davenport's victory was stunning in its precision, reinforcing her status as the world's No. 1 player. Sampras' was otherworldly, a performance so dominant, it left everyone in amazement.

``That's the closest thing to perfection,'' marveled 1987 champion Pat Cash, ``that you will ever see on a tennis court.''

To appreciate what happened, you had to consider the buildup. While Sampras hadn't played particularly well in the tournament, it was hard to imagine anyone better than Agassi in his three-set rout of Patrick Rafter, the two-time U.S. Open champion, on Saturday. Agassi is the first player since Jimmy Connors with the ability to win Wimbledon from the baseline, and many predicted a repeat of Agassi's stunning title run in '92.

In truth, Agassi played about seven or eight minutes of subpar tennis yesterday. On Sampras' stage, that's all it took to bring him down. Agassi might be the best service returner in history, but against Sampras, he couldn't manage a single break. They all went the other way, always with devastating consequences.

Serving at 3-4 and 15-40 in the first set, Agassi netted a forehand to give Sampras an opening. Forget it: Sampras served out the set with his seventh ace of the still-young match. Sensing the kill, Sampras immediately broke Agassi at love for a 1-0 lead -- so cash in the second set, as well. But save a moment for the highlight reel: Sampras' all-out, Boris Becker-like dive to his left for a spectacular volley winner that left a long, nasty cut on his right arm. He was truly in the ``zone'' now, and when they asked him about it afterward, Sampras was at a loss.

``It's all just incredible to me,'' he said. ``I don't know how I do it, to be honest with you.''

He does it alone, that's for certain, and he always has.

Pete didn't have one of those tennis dads from hell. Sam Sampras used to drop him off at his matches and practice sessions and then leave, telling the kid he'd pick him up afterward. To this day, the man cannot bear to look -- even on television -- as his son charges through history.

``Not to get too heavy, but maybe that's where I get my independence and the way I am on the court,'' Sampras said in a recent Tennis magazine article. ``I was this 11-year- old kid out there by myself, because my dad was going for a walk.''

Sampras grew up watching films of Rod Laver and the other great Australians, savoring everything about them: the championships, the courage, the quiet and gracious manner. He grew into a modern-day reincarnation, Palos Verdes style, and he never even considered a Hollywood lifestyle. ``You can't have a rock-star image and also be No. 1 for a number of years,'' he said recently. ``I've never thought you could have the popularity and the results.''

At times, Agassi has had both. But seldom for long, and never at Wimbledon if Pete was on the other side of the net. So switch now to yesterday's third set, on serve at 5-5. Sampras throws a changeup on his backhand service return, chipping a soft little slice. Agassi draws a bead on it but hammers his backhand into the net, embarrassingly. There's the break -- and the curtains.

"People think Pete's walking on water until he starts missing a little,'' said Agassi. ``But today he didn't. So he did walk on water.''

The match point was vintage Sampras. A lot of left-handers enter the discussion about the greatest serve of all time, notably John McEnroe, Goran Ivanisevic and Roscoe Tanner. But with apologizes to Pancho Gonzalez, there's no doubt about the right-handed serve. Sampras leaves everyone behind, whether it's pace, kick, variety or consistency. And on match point at Wimbledon, a few ticks past the stroke of 4 p.m., he hit a blistering ace with his second serve.

``That's the one shot you need to win here,'' said Sampras. ``And that was a great one. I surprised myself.''

Sampras didn't shout, cry, fall to his knees or use the courtside fans as steppingstones. He just threw up his arms and smiled. It was a gesture of relief, suggesting a man who had just finished some heavy lifting.

And as the terribly British postmatch ceremony unfolded, the hostess was wearing a tablecloth. Normally, the Duchess of Kent strikes the very image of royalty. Yesterday, for some reason, she appeared in a red-and-white checkerboard dress. It was if all her clothes had been stolen, and in the morning desperation the Duke chimed in: ``I think I've got it, dear. Look what I've found in the picnic basket.''

After the customary jolly-goods and small talk, Agassi began to draw a lot of attention as he paraded the runner-up's plate before some adoring fans. There is no protocol for such a thing, so Pete sort of wandered over there with the big cup. Agassi pretended to hit him with the plate. Sampras fired back with a similar gesture. Hearty laughter all around. For Sampras, a veritable vaudeville routine.

Maybe the trouble with Sampras is that in his unflappable way, he doesn't convey just how much he appreciates all this. In turn, maybe that's why the public has so much difficulty appreciating him. But Sampras has always felt that his game and his manners would have worked much better 30 years ago, that he was ``born at the wrong time,'' as he says.

So there he was, in his living room, essentially, standing exactly where Laver, Borg and Tilden had stood before him. He stood there joyously, for he needed no company. He was alone with the shadows and the pages of history.