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It's the thing to do at the Australian Open: Wrap yourself in a flag, drink a slab of tinnies, and barrack for your country. For years crazed Swedes with painted faces and cases of beer have chanted in the rafters after every elegant shot by Stefan Edberg, and last week Japanese fans made rowdy devotions to Kimiko Date, a surprise women's semifinalist.
In the men's final on Sunday, however, Pete Sampras and Todd Martin turned the event into a thoroughly Yank affair. Looking like a couple of Eagle Scout poster boys in their back-to-school haircuts, Sampras and Martin divided the vocal American crowd that visited Melbourne's Flinders Park. Cries of "Come on, Pete!" alternated with "Come on. Todd!" until finally a voice drifting down from the bleachers exhorted, "Come on, both of you!" In an absorbing and dead-even first set, the two players sent shots across the net like bottle rockets. Then Sampras pulled away from Martin as inexorably as he had from the rest of the men's field, taking the first Grand Slam title of 1994 by a score of 7-6, 6-4, 6-4.
A little early to start talking about Sampras's sweeping the four Grand Slam tournaments this year? Probably. But it's not too early to whisper. Sampras has his eyes fixed on the record book, and he has often said he would like to be mentioned in the same breath with his hero Rod Laver, the last man to win the Australian, French, British and U.S. championships in a calendar year (1969). When asked how he could improve on a '93 season in which he won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and rose to No. 1, Sampras said, "Maybe win them all." That didn't sound so audacious after his triumph Down Under.
The only person in Melbourne more overwhelming than Sampras was women's champion Steffi Graf, whose 6-0, 6-2 victory over second-seeded Arantxa Sánchez Vicario in 57 minutes last Saturday was one of the shortest Australian finals in memory. Sánchez Vicario was no more than a convenient target for Graf's axlike strokes. Graf, who did not come close to losing a set in collecting her fourth straight Grand Slam crown and her 15th overall, was thrilled by her performance. "When I play this way, I don't care about the score or the length [of the match] or whether it's the first round or the final." she said. "It just feels wonderful."
Graf was too pleased to reflect for long on the absence of former No. 1 Monica Seles, who's still inactive nine months after being stabbed by an attacker in Hamburg, Germany. But Graf admitted that she finds the game more interesting when she has a challenge. Without Seles or Jennifer Capriati, who has taken a sabbatical to finish high school, the women's draw seemed almost vacant.
Until, that is, Graf met Lindsay Davenport, a 17-year-old Californian who checks in at 6'2". Davenport is an unselfconscious giggler who resembles Rosie O'Donnell more than Rosie Casals. On the court, though, she has the strokes of a serial killer. She upset sixth-seeded Mary Joe Fernandez en route to the quarterfinals, where she lost 6-3, 6-2 to Graf.
No sooner had Graf dealt with Davenport than along came Date, who had upset third-seeded Conchita Martinez in the quarters. Date is an ambidextrous wonder who is far better than she showed in a 6-3, 6-3 loss to Graf. A resolute Japanese patriot who has had to be ordered by the Women's Tennis Association to learn English, Date cooked her own rice lunches in Melbourne and had acupuncture in her knees after every match. She rose to No. 7 in the rankings with her performance in Australia.
While Davenport and Date preoccupied Graf for only so long, Sánchez Vicario could not preoccupy her at all; she won only 12 points in getting bageled in the first set. Unless Seles returns, Graf could repeat her 1988 Grand Slam. Indeed, she may be an even better player than she was five years ago.
Sampras, meanwhile, played with such power and grace that the absence of Boris Becker, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang was all but forgotten. Becker was in Germany celebrating the birth of his first child. Agassi was in Las Vegas recovering from wrist surgery. Chang simply didn't want to play. Their presence wouldn't have mattered.
The reticent Sampras says he likes to do his talking with his racket. Well, then, this was oratory. After surviving a five-set scare from an unknown Russian named Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the second round, Sampras noticeably improved with each match. An indication of the exquisite form he reached was his shockingly easy 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 semifinal defeat of two-time defending champion Jim Courier. Sampras has defeated Courier in six of their last seven meetings, leaving Courier at a loss as to what to do. "Maybe break his leg on a changeover," Courier said.