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Pete Sampras in command.
Superman Sampras makes history

July 4, 1999

Pete Sampras raised the famous gold Wimbledon trophy to his lips, kissed it lovingly and showed it to all corners of the Centre Court. And as the world's photographers jostled for the best angle, you couldn't help feeling it was quite simply the picture of perfection.

It wasn't just that Sampras had won his sixth Wimbledon singles title against countryman Andre Agassi in straight sets on of all days, American Independence Day, that made it so perfect.

It wasn't that Sampras had at last equalled Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam singles titles - a feat he is now likely to eclipse and which will perhaps never be bettered.

It was the fact that never before on Centre Court, perhaps never before on any court, has a man played more complete tennis.

"In the middle of the second set I was on fire. I was in the zone. I couldn't have played any better," was Sampras's own verdict after a 6-3 6-4 7-5 victory which was as devastating as it was historic.

Only William Renshaw with seven victories has now won the men's singles title here more times than Sampras - and Renshaw reigned in the 1880s when the champion played only one match against purely domestic competition and when the prize was nothing more exciting than a cucumber sandwich.

Of course you can never compare players of different eras with any great precision. Equipment technology has changed, training methods have been refined.

But no-one could have lived with Sampras, the tennis Superman. Not Hoad or Laver, not McEnroe or Connors, not Borg or Lendl.

And certainly not Agassi, even though the flamboyant Las Vegan was at the top of his game and on a quest to become the first man since Borg to win the French and Wimbledon in the same year.

Sampras had simply breezed through this Wimbledon, much of the time hardly noticed as SW19 became obsessed with the retirement of Boris Becker, the renaissance of Agassi, the emergence of teenage stars Jelena Dokic and Alexandra Stevenson and the mania surrounding Tim Henman. He had barely been troubled.

But if Sampras had been operating on merely the first floor of his towering game for much of an otherwise disappointing year then he moved into the attic.

It was swaying, stooping, stupefying Sampras - forehand heavy and deep, backhand rapier-like, smash supreme and volley as precise and deft as a Swiss watchmaker.

And then there was that service - wonderfully smooth, uncomplicated but perhaps the most savage stroke in tennis.

Time after time when Agassi pushed open the door of that phenomenal service Sampras slammed it shut with a delivery of awesome dimensions.

Never in a final of such magnitude can there have been a more devastating declaration of intent than in the seventh and eighth games of the first set.

With the Sampras service in dire danger at love-40 and being attacked by the best return in the world, Sampras came up with three brilliant deliveries and another of his 17 aces to wriggle out of trouble.

It was somehow inevitable that the next game produced an Agassi double fault and an array of supreme groundstrokes from Sampras for the champion to take a 5-3 lead and serve out the set.

As sea-changes go this was of Atlantic proportions and even Agassi was later to admit that Sampras was "walking on water".

When the Agassi service was broken in the first game of the second set the crowd tried to lift the Las Vegan. "Come on, you're number one in the world," shouted one spectator. And so he is in the new rankings announced tomorrow, but what do computers know about excellence and courage and sheer talent?

What would a mere machine make of the crashing tumble Sampras took in the fourth game, grazing his elbow and shaking him physically, only to get up and serve two aces in excess of 120mph to win the game?

That takes mental toughness of the highest order and you were reminded of the day a hugely-focused Sampras had beaten Jim Courier back in 1993 - the afternoon critics had dubbed the final "Bored on the Fourth of July".

And, it's true, Sampras's perfection robbed the 99 version of a truly epic final.

But this was boring only in the way that watching Maurice Green become the fastest man in the world was boring or witnessing Bob Beamon leap out of the long jump pit was a chore.

The third set promised a fleeting Agassi renaissance as he pushed the Sampras service with increasingly ferocious returns. The crowd willed him to find the invention and imagination to prolong the contest, but still he could not muster even a single break point, his exasperation evident in a desperate cry of frustration in the 10th game.

The pressure on the bald Las Vegan, with earring dangling and hopes fading, was mounting game by game and the crucial break came in the 11th when an Agassi double fault and unforced errors on both backhand and forehand let Sampras in for the kill.

And so to the final game, on the second point of which Sampras served a 113mph boomer and let out a scream of "Come on" - his only concession to emotion throughout the one hour and 54 minutes the match lasted.

At 30-30 Sampras went tumbling again as he dived spectacularly at the net and the elbow he had grazed earlier spouted blood and an ugly red weal.

So what happened next? You've got it. He jumped up to serve two aces, one at 127mph and the other at 110, to clinch the title. A champion's performance from the champion of champions.

Then Sampras turned to his coach Paul Annacone and his great pal Tom Gullikson up in the players' box, punched the air with both fists and uttered a great roar of "Yessss".

And as he sat in his courtside chair while the presentation ceremony was being prepared he looked to each corner of the Centre Court, the court which Boris Becker earlier in the tournament had admitted was "Pete's home", to savour the moment.

"Is that why they call you Pistol Pete," a cry came from deep within the court. And, considering the 'bullets' which had ricocheted around Centre Court all afternoon the thought that Sampras was the fastest gun in town was entirely appropriate.

Yet, perhaps the most revealing moments of all came as the pair took simultaneous laps of honour, Sampras taking the anti-clockwise route, Agassi the reverse, round Centre Court.

For while the crowd politely saluted the champion, Agassi received a rousing ovation of true warmth and affection.

Perhaps that is the price which has to be paid for perfection over personality.

As the two passed each other, Agassi aimed a playful blow at Sampras as if to strike him on the head with his silver salver.

It was the only way he would have got his hands on that gold trophy.

© PA Sporting Life