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Sampras puts on show of perfection

July 4, 1999

ANDRE AGASSI, by some distance the best returner of serve at these Championships and entering his second final on an awesome streak of form, was powerless yesterday to prevent the storm he faced in Pete Sampras blowing him off Centre Court.

Agassi had 24 hours earlier announced his readiness to repeat his 1992 final triumph by performing an equally ruthless demolition job on Pat Rafter in a semi-final which offered an intriguing side issue of the world No 1 ranking to the winner.

It left him brimming with confidence of toppling Sampras, provided he could maintain that tremendously high level of performance. Apart from a disturbingly lower percentage of first serves, Agassi did again rise to the big occasion yet found himself overwhelmingly second best to Sampras.

"I feel as though I did everything I could out there but Pete produced some impeccable tennis at the most important times," Agassi said after a 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 hiding by his fellow American. "The fact that I have risen to No 1 in the world is fine but today on Centre Court at Wimbledon I was not No 1."

Agassi never gave up believing that he could eventually salvage the lost cause as he had so spectacularly when winning in the French Open final at Roland Garros last month. But he looked back ruefully to the crucial seventh game of the match when a series of flashing returns earned him three break points against the daunting Sampras serve.

The Sampras response was devastating. Four ferocious service winners, followed by an unreturnable second serve, rescued the holder from his first threat of danger and he then brutally turned the tables on his opponent by breaking to 15 with the aid of the most untimely of Agassi's six double faults.

After serving out gratefully for the opening set Sampras added to his opponent's misery by breaking immediately to love and running up a sequence of 23 points out of 26, leaving a dejected Agassi to reflect: "In six minutes I've gone from 3-3, 0-40 to a set and a break down, but that's how Pete plays. He can turn an entire match round in a matter of a minute and a half.

"You've got to weather his storm. When you do he's vulnerable and that is when I was going to get my opportunities. But his storm was too strong today. I couldn't do it."

Wimbledon, in the eyes of Agassi, is now at Sampras's mercy for as long as the six-time champion wants it. A haul of 10 Championships is within reach. "If he wants to come back and win then he can do so for the next four years. The guy is simply the best on grass. The only thing that can stop him is if he starts getting comfortable on an LA lifestyle and changes his priorities."

For Tim Henman and other would-be successors to this modest master craftsman that is a chilling thought and there was no solace in Sampras's debriefing.

The American now has 12 Grand Slams to equal a landmark reached by Roy Emerson, the Australian legend, 22 years ago and, needless to say, he wants more than a share of that record.

"I'm not thinking of that right now but once the US Open comes round and people start talking about it, I would love to do it - and do it where it all started for me in 1990. It's not going to be easy, though."

If Sampras, who declined to take part in the Australian Open in January and extended a miserable French record by falling at the second hurdle, fails at Flushing Meadow, where a determined Agassi will be leading the list of those seeking revenge, then it will be watch out Wimbledon 2000.

"Until now I haven't played great tennis this year but this is where it kicked in for me last year and I feel the same way now. Once I step on to that Centre Court there is something about this place that brings out the best in me."

Finishing on top of the computerised rankings for yet another year will also be a motivational factor. That, he said, was of secondary importance as he struggled to digest the magnitude of his accomplishment, but to prevent Agassi or Rafter, winner for the past two years, from prevailing at Flushing Meadow would go a long way towards re-establishing him on top of the world.

If and when he gets there, he will go beyond the record of 270 weeks set by Ivan Lendl, who was consistently frustrated in his desire to win a Wimbledon title.

Sampras, like Agassi, knew that only the best would be good enough to take the last title of the millennium on these lawns. Described by 1987 champion Pat Cash as being as close to perfection as you can get, Sampras enthused: "It's probably the best I've played in many years.

"Quite simply I was hitting the ball clean from the back of the court and serving big at the right time."

Sampras served 17 aces to Agassi's five and, more surprisingly, returned 61 per cent of Agassi's serves. Agassi could manage only 51 per cent.

Sampras, who did not concede even a break point in the second and third sets, was confident that one break in each would take him to his 1hr 54min victory. The decisive breakthrough in the third set came in the 11th game when Agassi, who had gallantly staved off two break points under intense pressure in the seventh, netted one of his stock-in-trade double-handers.

Sampras then went to match point with one ace and produced, impudently, an ace on second serve to seal his momentous triumph.

Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company