If ever a championship should have been shrouded in fog, this Wimbledon was the one. Instead, the sun shone on all of it. Bright rays exposed Jeff Tarango's foolish, balding head. Sunbeams illuminated the interior of Andre Agassi's billowing white shorts, which, accompanied by his head rag and inexplicably subservient play, made him look less like the world's No. 1 player than a domestic. Exposed to the glare were disappearances and low dramas. Maybe that's what happens when you let guys named Murph through the gates of the All England Club and trick up the balls and dig up the grounds in the name of progress. Thank god for Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf. Otherwise, think of the headlines: CLEANING LADY WINS WIMBLEDON.
Most of the fortnight was dominated by anything but tradition. In 27 Wimbledons since the open era began in 1968, no player had ever been defaulted; suddenly there were three. A bookie took bets on whether Goran Ivanisevic would smile once during the tournament—and had to pay one chap $1,700 when he did. Children and adults strolled the grounds wearing Agassi look-alike outfits, which included a fake goatee, sideburns, hoop earring and a do-rag. A sunstruck goofiness permeated the place as temperatures hit 110°. "I have never seen anything like this in all my years," said Nick Bollettieri, who coached Boris Becker to his first Grand Slam final since 1991. "Everything to anything happened."
But here was the weirdest part: In the end this Wimbledon evolved into a classic. For the first time since seeding began in 1927 the top four players in both the men's and women's draws reached the semifinals. From that point on the tournament provided grand, orchestral tennis, building to a crashing climax in the finals. Graf defeated Arantxa Sánchez Vicario 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 in a women's title match that was simply the best since Margaret Court defeated Billie Jean King 14-12, 11-9 in 1970. And Sampras beat Becker 6-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 to win his third straight Wimbledon crown. "History, baby," Sampras said, exulting afterward in the bowels of the Centre Court stadium. "It's a beautiful day."
Becker, as he lifted the runner-up plate, received a greater roar than had Sampras when he seized his trophy, a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that it was the 10th anniversary of Becker's first Wimbledon title, won at the age of 17. But in the long run this will be remembered as Sampras's day. Becker, at 27 the oldest finalist since 31-year-old Jimmy Connors in 1984, seemed to be reaching for something that was no longer there. He could not create so much as a single break point against Sampras's 129-mph serve. "You just hope for rain," Becker said. Even more disheartening to Becker was that Sampras committed just seven unforced errors while striking 68 winners. "I couldn't really blame myself," Becker said.
The normally impassive Sampras stripped off his shirt and flung it into the gallery, and followed that with a cup of water. The term "ThreePete" was immediately applied to Sampras's title, but that didn't do justice to his achievement. Sampras became only the third man since World War I—and the first American man—to win three in a row, joining the company of Fred Perry (1934 to '36) and Björn Borg (1976 to '80). And it was his first Grand Slam triumph in a year. He lost the 1995 Australian Open final to Agassi after his coach, Tim Gullikson, was stricken with brain tumors. Since Gullikson fell ill, Sampras has also struggled with a sprained ankle, the loss of his No. 1 ranking to Agassi and a first-round upset at the French Open. "This is the most emotional one, just because of the way the year has been," Sampras said, dedicating the victory to Gullikson. "There is no better feeling than waking up after one of these. If I ever get to sleep."
For Graf, her sixth Wimbledon title was her hardest-won. She played pumped full of anti-inflammatories to quell the pain of a bone spur in her back. Yet another injury, this one to her wrist, had caused her to fly home to Germany for treatment four days before the tournament began and prompted her to withdraw at the last minute from the doubles competition, in which she was scheduled to play with Martina Navratilova. "It has been quite difficult," she said. "You can't imagine."
Her fitness didn't seem to be so questionable when, in the final, she outendured the most durable player in the game in second-ranked Sánchez Vicario. And she won arguably the best single game ever played on Centre Court, the penultimate of the match. It was a 32-point, 13-deuce affair that lasted 20 minutes, before Graf broke Sánchez Vicario's serve for a 6-5 lead.
Graf then easily held serve for the title, running her match record for the year to 32-0. Afterward she jogged up to the box to hug her family then darted back into a dark hallway, where she let out a shriek of joy that rang throughout Centre Court.
Graf's titles are increasingly precious to her, as her injury-plagued body deteriorates. Two years ago she prevailed at Wimbledon on a bad foot. She has had sinus problems, elbow problems, shoulder problems. Her struggle to recover her health since her back ailment was diagnosed following her loss in the U.S. Open to Sánchez Vicario last September has been a courageous one.
Yet, as gallant as Graf's effort was, it was no more inspired than the performance of Sánchez Vicario, who is determined to make her place among the great players. Sánchez Vicario, clay court born and raised in Spain, reached her first Wimbledon final aided by a simple change of attitude. It was Conchita Martínez's victory last year that suddenly opened Sánchez. Vicario's eyes: If her countrywoman and rival could do it, so could she. That was obvious as she upset Martínez in the semifinals 6-3, 6-7, 6-1. "To tell the truth, I've never really prepared well for this tournament," Sánchez Vicario said. "I never thought about the good things here, only the bad. I was always complaining that grass is for cows. I complained about the bounces. I complained about the weather. It took me longer than most people, but finally I changed my mind."