The record will show that every seat was filled, that hundreds of journalists scribbled intently, that linesmen and ball kids and the chair umpire surrounded Wimbledon's Centre Court on Sunday. It can be stated with reasonable certainty that an opponent stood on the other side of the net, racket in hand, believing for a split second that he might win. But it didn't seem that way. No, Pete Sampras made all that disappear. For one hour and 35 minutes, as Sampras drilled serve after merciless serve, as his face betrayed no trace of effort, his metronomic devastation of Cédric Pioline in the men's final rendered everything else superfluous. No one could get into the match—not the fans, not the officials and definitely not Pioline. It was all Sampras, erasing the world and the suddenly beaming sun with excellence, lifting tennis to such a rarefied level that one year or six months or two days from now people will try in vain to recall whom Sampras beat. "He doesn't give you air," Pioline said after losing 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. "You cannot breathe against him."
What American boy could ask for more? Eight years ago Sampras went to Wimbledon for the first time and was bounced in the first round. Now, at 25, he has the tennis world by the throat. By winning his 10th Grand Slam singles title, he moved into a tie with Bill Tilden on the men's alltime list and positioned himself two short of Roy Emerson's record of 12. The discussion around Sampras now has less to do with opponents such as Pioline than with those legends who gathered about Sampras when the All England Club began this year's soggy fortnight on June 23 with the ceremonial opening of the new Court No. 1.
That day, for the first time in his career, Sampras found himself surrounded by the history he has been chasing all these years. One by one, champions who had won at least three Wimbledons lined up before an adoring throng: Boris Becker, Louise Brough, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, John New-combe and, last, Sampras. He fidgeted in the morning damp, digging his right toe into the new grass, casing the joint and chatting with Becker, and after everyone else was called up to receive a commemorative plate, Sampras found himself standing alone, waiting to be summoned.
"I was the last one...and it hit me," Sampras said later. "For a second I felt like, What am I doing here? Then I knew: I'm in a great class of players. I felt good about myself. I realized I'm making some sort of impact on the game."
Some sort? With all of Sampras's serious rivals suddenly gone, his stature in the game is colossal. His somber focus in London made him seem like the only adult playing. "I really have no fear," he said after his victory Sunday, and no one could argue. Sampras made good on a stunning 66% of his first serves during the tournament and was broken only twice in 118 service games. His semifinal victim, Todd Woodbridge, a savage competitor who defeated Sampras in Sampras's first match here, felt vaguely honored by the beating. "It's something I'll talk about when I'm finished, how good he was," Woodbridge said.
When Becker made up his mind six months ago to retire, he had one vision of his final Wimbledon match: playing on Centre Court against Sampras. When that wish came true last Thursday in the quarterfinals and Sampras had triumphed 6-1, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4, Becker leaned over the net and told his startled opponent that this was his last Wimbledon. Never once, in three meetings there, had Becker broken Sampras's serve. He told Sampras it had been a pleasure to play him. "I was glad it was him, because I respect him so much," Becker said later. "For me, he was always the most complete player. He has the power, he has the speed, he has the touch. He is the best player ever."
Yet when Sampras trotted around Centre Court on Sunday, holding his gold trophy aloft like a burning torch, what should have been one of America's finest tennis moments was instead one of its most troubling. After a disastrous French Open in which, for the first time since 1969, no American man reached the quarterfinals, things got worse for the U.S. at Wimbledon. While all of Great Britain banged the patriotic drum for the quarterfinal runs of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski (WE'VE NEVER HAD IT so GOOD! screamed one headline), Yanks Andre Agassi, Todd Martin and 1996 Wimbledon finalist MaliVai Washington sat out the tournament with injuries; No. 2 Michael Chang and former No. 1 Jim Courier lost in the opening round; an Open-era low of six Americans advanced to the second round; and Sampras alone made it to the quarters. The U.S. was even weaker on the women's side. Only No. 13 Mary Joe Fernandez scratched her way to the fourth round, making this the worst American performance at Wimbledon since—Model T, anyone?—1913.
One lost summer doesn't make for a crisis. With the hard-court season looming and Agassi making noise about yet another comeback, the U.S. Open could prove to be a showcase for homegrown tennis. But the current class of players isn't what concerns U.S. tennis officials. "After we're done, there's not really another young American coming up," Sampras said last week. "Americans are going to have to really enjoy what they have."
For the moment, the best U.S. female prospect is 17-year-old hairdo Venus Williams, who competed numbly at Wimbledon on a surface perfectly suited to her skills and lost in the first round. "I don't know with Venus," said the women's eventual champion, Martina Hingis. "She doesn't take it too seriously. It's like she doesn't want to win. I don't know if she feels pressure or not, and I don't know what she thinks on the court. She's always trying to do a show, not playing real tennis."
On the men's side, 117th-ranked Justin Gimelstob, 20, had a nice first-round win over French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten but is damned by faint praise. "Justin's got some talent, and he can be a good player," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson. "I don't think he can be a great player."