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Alone, At the Top
S.L. Price
July 14, 1997
Wimbledon, which he won with majestic ease, showed that Pete Sampras may be the best tennis player ever—and that there's no American remotely like him on the horizon
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July 14, 1997

Alone, At The Top

Wimbledon, which he won with majestic ease, showed that Pete Sampras may be the best tennis player ever—and that there's no American remotely like him on the horizon

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In the junior ranks, only 14 of the top 100 girls are American—although one, 17-year-old Aubrie Rippner, made it to the Wimbledon juniors final. Just six of the top 100 boys are American. The hottest buzz surrounds 16-year-old Taylor Dent, son of former touring pro Phil Dent, a transplanted Australian. Taylor is ranked No. 310 in the world among juniors. He lost in the first round of the Wimbledon boys' singles.

Blame Tiger Woods, the rise of basketball and/or the complacency of the U.S. Tennis Association—which has been notoriously slow to develop the game at the grass roots and in the inner city—but the irony is unavoidable: When the USTA unveils its $254 million Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open next month, it will celebrate a sport that is in decline in America. "It's pretty sad," said No. 8 Lindsay Davenport, the top U.S.-born woman and a second-round loser at Wimbledon. "People in our country aren't playing right now, and they're not watching tennis too much either. I don't know what to do to change that."

New USTA president Harry Marmion said on Sunday that later this month he will receive the results of a six-month study on the dearth of U.S. tennis talent, and he expects its recommendations to include the hiring of more coaches, a revamping of the USTA area training centers and an increase in the $3.6 million budget for the association's player-development program. "I wouldn't be surprised to see that number double or quadruple," Marmion said. "This is a serious problem, and I'm determined that we're going to solve it."

Of course, neither Sampras nor any other U.S. tennis great emerged from any national program. Sampras is the final harvest of the U.S. tennis boom of the 1970s, a kid who grew up watching Jimmy Connors and McEnroe on TV and thinking tennis was cool, a boy who believed what the commentators said about Wimbledon's being a cathedral. "There's a certain aura about the place that you don't feel anywhere else," Sampras said last week. "The echo of the balls on Centre Court—it just feels significant."

By the time Sampras was coming of age as a player, however, the boom had shifted to Europe, where girls aped Czech stars Hana Mandlikova, Jana Novotna and, of course, nine-time Wimbledon champ Navratilova. It's not surprising that Hingis, named for Navratilova and reared on a diet of tennis, considers her Wimbledon trophy far more precious than that of her first Grand Slam championship, the '97 Australian. "I'm maybe too young to win this title," the 16-year-old Hingis said after beating the 28-year-old Novotna 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 in Saturday's final and becoming the youngest All England women's champion this century. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anyone in tennis matches Sampras for talent, savvy and match toughness, it's Hingis.

Before the tournament many observers, noting Steffi Graf's absence following surgery on her left knee and Hingis's stunning loss to Iva Majoli in the French Open final, picked Novotna to shed her choke collar at last and win Wimbledon. Not only had Hingis played no preparatory grass-court tournament, but she also spent much of the fortnight loathing the surface. "I hate grass," she said after beating Anna Kournikova, also 16, in the semifinals 6-3, 6-2, "because you have to think differently."

Yet Hingis kept winning her matches in straight sets and kept grinning and expressing her disregard for Graf ("If she's going to come back, for sure it's not going to be the same Steffi as she was. Her career is almost over"), Kournikova ("I don't think it's such a big rivalry. I've always been better, and I always beat her") and Novotna ("Jana can play very good tennis, but sometimes she just can't win").

When Novotna played flawless grass-court tennis to race to a 6-2 lead in the final, you could see Hingis's wheels start to turn. She began to mix her shots, lobbing, going to the net, opening up the court. She won the second set, and in the third she made one astonishing backhand pass after another. Novotna, nursing a pulled stomach muscle, didn't gag this time. She got beaten, and she shed no tears as she had on the duchess of Kent's shoulder after her notorious loss to Graf in 1993. Instead, Novotna played mock tug-of-war with Hingis over the winner's plate.

Meanwhile Hingis—who but for one Sunday in Paris would be undefeated in 45 matches this year and on her way to a possible Grand Slam—cemented her place at the top of the game. "I was there, the Wimbledon champion, standing on Centre Court," she said on Sunday. "No one can take that from me. I will remember that all my life."

The 29-year-old Becker knows exactly how she feels. For him, there is simply no tournament like Wimbledon. As his coach, Mike DePalmer, said, "This is where Boris became a man." In 1984, at his first Wimbledon, Becker tore ligaments in his ankle in a match against Bill Scanlon and, before being carted off on a stretcher, insisted on stopping and standing up to shake Scanlon's hand. The next year, at 17, Becker became the youngest man to win Wimbledon. He went on to play in six other All England finals, winning twice more, and to experience at Wimbledon some of his sweetest and worst moments. Last year he pulled up lame with a torn tendon in his right wrist, and the injury began a spiral of nagging ailments that convinced Becker his time had come. After he lost his first-round match at the Australian Open in January, he made the decision to retire from Grand Slam competition after this year. "On the court, I had the feeling I didn't belong there anymore," Becker said last week. "Afterward I said to [my wife] Barbara, 'I can't go on like this anymore, but we somehow have to fill the six months to get to Wimbledon.' "

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