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Pistol Pete guns down critics

July 4, 1999

If you're lucky enough hanging around sport you get to see some remarkable things. You see Piggott hitting the rising ground at Epsom as if he is driving a train, you see Ali in his prime and Schumacher in the rain.

You also see Pete Sampras winning his sixth Wimbledon title and making Andre Agassi, the only man to win every Grand Slam title on four different surfaces, take on the demeanour of a little boy lost.

There are some who still insist that Sampras is boring, but this morning they deserve pity rather than censure. Presumably, they would have chided da Vinci and Michaelangelo for being so perfect. Sampras didn't just touch perfection yesterday. He hunted it down and wore it like a shining coat.

Of course he couldn't hold it for the entire 154 minutes of his three-set dismantling of the pigeon-toed, knocked-kneed hero of the crowd who for two solid weeks had enchanted Wimbledon with both the power and the exquisite expression of his game.

There were moments when Agassi had something to say, and if it was mostly despairing it was also inevitably marked with brilliance. One fierce rally was as intense as the shoot-out at the OK Corral, and Agassi won it at the net.

Such flashes reminded us of the sheer blazing quality of Agassi, a man who has modelled his tennis persona on the great Australian Rod Laver, and at the same time it defined precisely what we were seeing from Sampras.

It was tennis off the chart. Tennis of such authority and poise and flinty edge that Agassi repeatedly looked stunned by his inability to inflict himself on the match.

Once Agassi stood for a good 10 seconds contemplating the scale of his challenge. He had peeled off a wondrous backhand only to see a tumbling Sampras steal the point with a stop volley of absolute nerve and timing.

On another occasion he screamed in anguish when he failed with a backhand down the line. He knew then that he was finished, that whatever he did Sampras would do something better, something more refined, something that little bit more unanswerable.

The day before Sampras had ambushed Tim Henman by breaking him to love in a vital match. Now he delivered the sword to Agassi in the same brutal fashion. But on Saturday Sampras was fighting through a crisis of form and touch. He had come into the light.

He played a series of backhands from one corner of the court to the other that were so geometrically perfect, so filled with confidence, that the match was just about over. The explosion came in the seventh game of the first set, when Agassi held four break points.

Sampras tore them back, then went on to a new level of endeavour, mopping up the first set and slaughtering Agassi's service game at the start of the second. Had this been a fight the doctor would surely have been called to Agassi's corner.

What he would have found was a fighter of remarkable spirit and immense talent who had simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sampras, besieged by doubters as he walked on to the court, reminded us that he was ultimately at home.

When it was over he almost shyly raised the trophy for a record sixth time. Agassi was still milking the cheers that go naturally to all crowd pleasers, but his hurrahs were edged with sadness.

He had done so much to enliven one of the best of Wimbledons, but he had been treated almost as an irrelevance to the central action. Later Sampras confessed: "I just don't know how I do it." It is always the sweetest mystery of sport when one performer rises so far above the rest. But there are certain common denominators.

There is the passion to be the best and the discipline to support that ambition. There is the understanding that gifts which come at birth are leased rather than owned. Sampras's implicit understanding of this now takes him alongside Australian Roy Emerson as the owner of a record 12 Grand Slams. He has passed the Iceman Bjorn Borg, the first man to reach five titles since William Renshaw won seven in the old, Victorian gas-lit days of the challenge round.

The record books now lie at his feet, awaiting his effort in the US Open in September. But what happened on the Centre Court went beyond such measurement. It was an effort of will that, like all the greatest deeds in sport, stood on its own. "That's why they call you Pistol, Pete," cried a voice in the crowd. Sampras laughed and took a few more bows. Record books are one thing, knowing you are the best is another. Everyone knew it yesterday and finding out was about as boring as a walk in the Louvre.