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Sampras: King of SW19

July 4, 1999

Pete Sampras's sixth Wimbledon title in seven years has cemented his place in tennis history as the game's greatest grass court player. He achieved his 1999 title with typical flair - two second serve aces - and in doing so tied Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam titles, passing Bjorn Borg to become Wimbledon's greatest men's singles champion of the last 100 years.

Despite his success, Sampras remains a reluctant hero.

As a man he is fiercely private, but as a champion he demands that others appreciate his achievements.

His pursuit of Grand Slam titles might have begun as a painfully shy 19-year-old at the US Open in 1990, but it was at Wimbledon in 1993, when he defeated Jim Courier in the final, that his career came of age.

Master of the grass
He has never looked back, treating the 1996 blip against Holland's Richard Krajicek in the quarter-finals with typical contempt to secure consecutive wins over the next three years.

This year's tournament, more than most in recent years, has tested him to the full.

He wandered through with hardly so much as a by-your-leave. The Americans have been as besotted as the British by the retirement of Boris Becker, the renaissance of Andre Agassi, the birth of a new sensation in Alexandra Stevenson, and John McEnroe's mixed doubles magic.

Sampras's progress has simply followed its normal route, undisturbed, understated.

"It's been a strange Wimbledon," he said. "There's no magic formula for dealing with what happens when the schedule is disrupted, in fact, in my quarter-final against Mark Philippoussis, I didn't handle anything very well.

"I've never had a secret here at Wimbledon. I suppose it has helped having been here for 10 years, renting a house in the village, living the same kind of existence every year.

"I had a massage after the Philippoussis match, went home, rented a couple of videos, ate a nice dinner, went to bed, slept well. That's me."

Champion of champions
If he appears understated, his tennis is not. The record books continue to be filled with his exploits and his 1999 victory will send shivers down the spine of his rivals.

This was Sampras at his weakest, we were all told before the tournament began.

In the last 18 months, he had sustained a number of injuries and there were signs that the game was moving into a post-Sampras era.

Last year, Sampras won four titles, including Wimbledon where he beat Goran Ivanisevic in five service-battering sets, and handed over the number one spot to Marcelo Rios before winning it back at the year-end for a record sixth successive year.

The effort required to stay at the top for so long clearly took its toll on the 27-year-old, both physically and mentally.

His decision not to play Davis Cup for the US made him few friends and tennis seemed to give him little enjoyment in 1998 as he constantly complained about the drudgery of the tour.

It was brave decision to take some time off but it worked wonders for Sampras's psyche. "Not going to Australia was perhaps not the best decision as far as tennis is concerned but it was the best decision of my life," he said.

"I was exhausted, both physically and mentally, and I needed to take some time off."

"After all those years I felt like a robot," he said in May.

Doubters proved wrong
The bookmakers again made Sampras favourite for Wimbledon after his success at Queens. But the doubters remained sure that this time he would slip up.

He did not of course. And if one considers his history - in form or not - he should never be underestimated.

Whether he return to defend his title next year remains to be seen. He has complained that he is tired of the tour.

"The older I get, I feel I want to start to enjoy more of what I'm doing," he said.

"You think, 'Is this worth it?' If you don't enjoy the victories, it's not. I've been at this level, this high level that people have come to expect from me, for a long time now.

"The expectation is flattering, in a way. But at times I want people to appreciate how difficult it has been."

Few could disagree with him. No-one had done more on a tennis court than the mild-mannered American, one whose name will live on for as long as the game is played.