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Good tennis tells simple story for Sampras, Davenport

July 4, 1999

The winners were two Americans who held the same distinction, unique to their shared 1999 Wimbledon experience. Of the contenders for the singles titles, Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport were easily the most taken-for-granted.

So many of their opponents made for better copy.

That has always been the rap on Sampras, anyway, if you could call it that. Too well-behaved. Too boring. So overly concerned about mastering his craft that he offers no corollary behavior to hype his sport.

Davenport, meanwhile, doesn't really care to be celebrated. But unlike some athletes who don't like attention, she doesn't resent anyone for noticing when her play is too good for anyone to ignore.

The joke is on the tennis world after the nonchalant way it watched Sampras and Davenport roll through Wimbledon.

Andre Agassi is too smart to dismiss what Sampras can do on grass. Steffi Graf is too respectful not to be concerned about Davenport's improved game. But one twist since the Agassi-Graf titles at the French Open four weeks ago is how their Roland Garros performances pushed Sampras and Davenport further into the background.

YET NOW THAT DAVENPORT has won her second Grand Slam title in less than 10 months, she joins the other three Wimbledon singles finalists as someone worthy of all-time status.

It's still early to put her in the same light as Graf, Agassi and Sampras. But because Davenport has won Grand Slam events on two surfaces, a career Slam seems reachable. Agassi achieved one by winning the French Open for the first time last month.

The past two years, Davenport has reached the semifinals of the Australian Open -- played on a hard surface like that of the U.S. Open, which Davenport won in 1998 over Martina Hingis. And the clay of Roland Garros does not exasperate her the way it does Sampras. She was a French Open semifinalist last year.

The one surface that always had confounded her -- a surface she "hated" -- was the very one on which she stood so proudly Sunday, hoisting the Wimbledon championship plate.

"At the U.S. Open, I beat Martina Hingis, who was the No. 1 at the time, and here I beat Graf and (defending champion Jana Novotna), and those are probably the two best grass-courters we have," Davenport said Sunday. "No one can say, 'Lindsay had an easy draw, she just won it.' I beat the best, and that's the most special way."

FOR SAMPRAS, A WIMBLEDON TITLE almost seems a hum-drum affair. He won his sixth in singles there Sunday.

Now he has tied Roy Emerson for career Grand Slam titles, with 12. Sampras has a strong sense for the game's history, and passing Emerson is his next mission.

That might happen in New York in September, or next winter in Australia. But, of course, the rub for Sampras is Paris. The clay surface continues to befuddle the man who is arguably the best of all-time.

When might that change? Sampras will turn 28 on Aug. 12. He still has time to end his French Open jinx.

It's not as if he has embarrassed himself there. Three years ago, Yevgeny Kafelnikov was the only player who stood between Sampras and the final. But he hasn't come close since.

Sampras remains eight Grand Slam titles ahead of Agassi. But Agassi sure has known how to space his out. Four Slams, one in each place.

Sampras simply owns Wimbledon.

"It's a little overwhelming to have won the way I've won, to be honest. I don't know how I do it, I really don't, to be honest," Sampras said. "It's going to take time for this to sink in."

As he beat Agassi in three sets, Sampras realized his game could not be any better than it was Sunday.

The possibility of a career Grand Slam can't be dismissed. Anyone who appreciates drama would root for Sampras to wait until Paris next year to break Emerson's record.

AND ANYONE WHO APPRECIATES symmetry would pull for Davenport to win Paris at the same time.

There is no small degree of soap opera around tennis players these days, but Davenport and Sampras offer little in that regard. More stories will come from the controversial players -- stories about wacky parents, or the nearly disrespectful ways guys such as Kafelnikov and Marcelo Rios have handled their temporary custody of the No. 1 ranking.

Inevitably, those stories will push Sampras and Davenport into the background. Inevitably, the quality of their tennis will spring them back into prominence.