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Sampras simply perfection
Posted: Sunday July 04, 1999 05:08 PM
By Barry Flatman
LONDON (SportLive.net) -- Modesty and a sense of Centre Court decorum prevented Pete Sampras from shouting back at the person who tried to unsettle his serve by calling out that Andre Agassi is the world No 1.
"That maybe true," would have been a justifiable reply. "But I am not a number, I'm just the best."
Of that there cannot be any doubt. And after winning the 12th Grand Slam title he needed to equal Roy Emerson's 32-year-old record, who is to say whether Sampras is the best there is at the moment or the greatest of all time?
Few Wimbledon champions have hit the level of consistent brilliance which the American showed to extinguish the fire which had seen Agassi burn his way to last month's French Open title, snatch top spot on the world rankings and put six opponents to the torch en route to the final.
The record books will show Sampras won his sixth Wimbledon title in seven years by beating his long-term rival Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 and pocketed £455,000. What those fortunate enough to witness this one hour and 55 minute demonstration of perfection would know is that nobody has quite mastered the art of grass-court tennis like this amazing man.
It was not that Agassi played badly or was struggling to find his form. The Las Vegan stepped on to court oozing confidence but soon had his legs swept from under him by a superhuman show of controlled aggression.
Maybe Sampras did not need to hit his peak to beat Tim Henman but this was another story and even the 27-year-old enthused about his show. "That's the best I have played for many years," said Sampras. "It was as well as I could play, plain and simple. That was probably my greatest-ever performance."
Those who have been watching the legend since he won his first Grand Slam title at the US Open nine years ago, ironically beating Agassi in the final, would not disagree.
There have been several heroic Sampras performances; the night in Melbourne when he broke down in tears after hearing the terminal gravity of his coach Tim Gullikson's illness but still managed to beat Jim Courier, the evening at New York's Flushing Meadows when he fought exhaustion as well as Alex Corretja and was physically sick, the afternoon in Moscow when he had to be carried off court after winning a crucial rubber in the Davis Cup final.
But this was different. This was not so much valour, more victorious and total fulfilment after a first half of the year when many were prepared to write off Sampras after he apparently bled his tanks dry in pursuit of his overriding aim of finishing 1998 as world No1 for the sixth year in succession.
Sampras, who blitzed the player revered as the best returner of serve with 17 aces and 43 unplayable deliveries, said: "You know it's not easy to play well in a final like this but Andre brings the best out of me.
"They were tough circumstances with nerves and the big occasion. I didn't think I was going to play that great, in fact I didn't know what was going to happen but once you get into the heat of competition, it's all instinct."
Nobody will ever know what might have happened if Mark Philippoussis had not retired with a damaged knee when one set up in Friday's quarter-final. Yet from the moment Sampras propelled an ace down the centre-line on the fourth point of the final, there was a purpose to his performance which suggested this was going to be a day of greatness.
Initially, the pair exchanged the fiercest of baseline rallies in the 24th encounter of their careers. Something special was being created and though this Wimbledon had been revered as one of the best for years, the level was being upped to an unprecedented high.
But something or someone had to give and it was Agassi. After squandering the opportunity of three break points in the first set, he allowed Sampras to kick down on the accelerator and a quarter-of-an-hour of utter magnificence killed off the Las Vegan's challenge. Sampras broke Agassi's serve and took the first set a game later. He immediately broke again to love, and from that moment on the final was finished as a contest.
Occasionally Agassi managed to unleash his trademark returns but the second set was soon history and though he had managed to come back from a similar deficit to win the French title against Andrei Medvedev four weeks earlier, a rampant Sampras was an altogether different proposition.
After missing that triple opportunity in the first set, Agassi did not register another break point. But there were moments when he could only marvel at what was happening on the other side of the net.
Once he stood open mouthed in amazement as his compatriot seemed to celebrate the Fourth of July with a diving volley which a youthful Boris Becker would have been proud to make. And though the crowd were not treated to his signature 'slam dunk', the power and precision of his serving just got better and better.
Fittingly it was a brace of aces which clinched victory, both screaming down the middle, before Sampras raised his hands in triumph and turned to celebrate with coach Paul Annacone and a band of supporters.
Agassi may be No. 1 on the world rankings this morning as the pair of Americans wing their way back over the Atlantic, but that is all down to mathematics. If the criteria of supremacy is pure genius then champion Sampras has no peers, past or present.
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