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Sampras asserts supremacy

July 4, 1999

In becoming Wimbledon's man of the century, Pete Sampras was near perfection yesterday, lucky only in the respect that Andre Agassi was on the same court to provide the ideal foil for his geometry in motion.

The one disappointment for those who judge close matches only in terms of marathons would be that Agassi was unable to take the contest beyond straight sets. Blame Sampras for that. After all, the 27-year-old Californian is a sublime player who has been called dull by observers who seem to find it hard to acknowledge brilliance without showmanship.

Although statistics should never be allowed to overwhelm the poetry of great performances, Sampras's majesty is stated in the clearest terms. He has won the Wimbledon men's singles title six times, one more than Bjorn Borg, who accomplished five in a row at the end of the 1970s, and one fewer than William Renshaw, whose seven were accumulated in the good, old-fashioned 1880s.

Yesterday's triumph, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, after an hour and 55 minutes, also took Sampras ahead of Borg and Rod Laver (Sampras's hero) with 12 Grand Slam singles titles, a record he now shares with Australia's Roy Emerson.

Sampras reached those goals on the day he was supplanted as the world No 1 by Agassi, whose advance to the final on top of his breathtaking performance in winning the French Open (the only title to have eluded Sampras) a month ago completed the Las Vegan's climb from the ignominy of being ranked as low as No 142 in November 1997.

Sampras hardly spared a thought for the loss of status, having finished 1998 as the world No 1 for a record six years consecutively. He is greedy, but not a glutton, and did not ask for anything more than to be able to defeat his great American rival on the Fourth of July (Agassi at least deserves the indulgence of tucking into the biggest of Big Macs).

The Americans were delighted that the joy of the occasion was extended to Lindsay Davenport, the women's champion, a Californian who used to be regarded as the Statue of Liberty of the lawns.

Given that their own Tim Henman had departed on Saturday, the crowd could not have asked for better than a first Wimbledon final between The Prince and The Bald Eagle. The bonus was that although dark clouds hovered, the weather held better than Agassi.

As yesterday's match began to unfold, it was difficult to imagine that Sampras and Agassi had voluntarily missed that epic Davis Cup tie against Britain at Easter, and that the event had been such a rousing success without them. So much for all the wailing over America's lack of players. Tomorrow can take care of itself.

On show yesterday, in the most famous Centre Court in the world, were the two players who have dominated men's tennis in the 1990s. Sampras's win means that he leads 14-10 in their meetings, including a five-set victory in the 1993 Wimbledon semi-finals, when Sampras went on to defeat another American, Jim Courier, on another Fourth of July.

Of the many memorable contests between Sampras and Agassi, their first in a Grand Slam final, at the 1990 United States Open, marked the start of Sampras's success in the majors. "I wasn't really ready for it, I just got hot for two weeks," he recalls, while Agassi, who won only nine games in the three sets, remembers how Sampras "kicked my butt".

Their last Grand Slam final before yesterday was at the 1995 US Open. Sampras won in four sets after gaining the momentum of a first-set lead by winning what has gone down in tennis lore as The Point. Agassi was serving at 4-5, advantage Sampras, and the pair produced an astonishing 22-stroke rally of deep, angled groundstrokes, Sampras converting the set point by countering an Agassi forehand with a cross-court backhand.

It was the sort of point, it was lamented at the time, that we could never hope to see at Wimbledon, where the fast lawns inhibit the construction seen on the medium-pace concrete of New York. There was to be no repeat of that yesterday, but at least Sampras and Agassi demonstrated how much excitement can be generated on the grass by two men with contrasting styles playing at the top of their game.

Sampras hit 17 aces yesterday, an indication of how difficult it was for Agassi to break him. But the passages of action that made the most lasting impressions where those involving the duellists in rallies of up to 10 shots of the highest quality: deep, crisp and low over the net, prompting gasps from the spectators. The angled groundstrokes were accompanied by dazzling movement, and the long-range warfare was leavened by the most delicate of touch play in mid-court and at the net.

Sampras saved the first break point of the match with a backhand pass in the third game. Agassi then saved one in the sixth game, with a second serve strong enough to make Sampras overhit a forehand return. The crux of the set, and possible the match, came at 3-3, when Sampras recovered from 0-40 with a series of five serves which rocked Agassi back. Agassi double-faulted to 15-40 in the next game, and Sampras pounced on a second serve.

Agassi was not able to recover in the second set after losing serve to love in the opening game. None the less, the pace of the exchanges continued to be unrelenting, with Sampras gaining a psychological edge by proving willing and able to trade shots from the back of the court as well as volleying beautifully and diving, Becker-style to rescue points, regardless of the risk to limbs that have creaked more than once this season.

The crowd, while expressing appreciation of Sampras's splendid play, never ceased to encourage Agassi. "Come on, Andre, you're the No 1" was typical of the urges from the stands.

Playing like the current No 1 was not enough to disabuse his predecessor, however, and Agassi's wonderful shots were eclipsed by phenomenal ones by the champion.

The crunch came at 5-5 in the third set. Agassi overhit a forehand beyond the baseline to 15-40, and Sampras loosened up, ready for the kill. Agassi saved the first break point with a backhand volley, but made such a tame attempt to erase the second with a backhand half-volley that the ball slumped into the net.

In the next game, Sampras advanced to match point with an ace down the middle at 30-30, and finished with the audacity of an ace off a second serve. "Yeah," he roared, arms aloft in triumph.

Presentations made, parades of honour completed (the players jokingly bumped into each other and pretended to hit each other with their trophies), Sampras stepped into the interview room and was as wide-eyed as he had been on his first trip in there with the Challenge Cup in 1993. "I'm still spinning, my mind's racing," he said. "It will hit me in a couple of weeks, I'm sure."