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For Sampras, Wimbledon Is Served

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 7, 1997; Page D 1

WIMBLEDON, England, July 6 — Pete Sampras felt no fear, not even a flutter, when he walked onto Centre Court today to play a Wimbledon final the entire world expected him to win. His opponent, Cedric Pioline, felt as if he could not breathe.

There is good reason Sampras had no doubt in his inviolability, and reason, too, that Pioline felt constricted. Playing better than anyone else at Wimbledon — both this year and throughout most of history — Sampras today claimed a lopsided 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Pioline for his fourth Wimbledon men's singles title and 10th Grand Slam championship.

At 25, Sampras owns more Wimbledon titles than anyone in the Open era except for Bjorn Borg, who won five. He has matched the total won by his idol, Rod Laver, and he is two Grand Slam titles from tying the record of 12 held by Roy Emerson. He also is on the verge of definitively establishing himself as the greatest male player in history, a title some tennis watchers already attach to his name.

"This is what it's all about, the major titles, and to have won 10 by the age of 25 — I never really thought it would happen," said Sampras, the first American man to win four titles here. "This is what's going to keep me in the game. ... It makes it all worth it, all the hard work I put into the game."

With a serve so splendid it seemed unearthly, Sampras took less time to defeat Pioline today than it took Martina Hingis, the top-seeded woman, to win her best-of-three singles final against Jana Novotna on Saturday. His serve never was broken, and Pioline had break point just once during the match.

Sampras finished the final game with a sizzling first serve that Pioline hit hopelessly. Sampras then thrust up his arms in the usual gesture of triumph. His heart pounding, he put his right fist on his chest.

Known for being rather stoic, even in victory, Sampras later blew a kiss to his girlfriend, actress Kimberly Williams, as he basked in the crowd's adulation. He also had an irrepressible smile when the Duke of Kent handed him the Challenge Cup. With that trophy, Sampras moved one Grand Slam championship behind Laver and Borg, and within striking distance of Emerson.

"To have won 10 just makes me feel that 12 is something that's so much more realistic, that I can break the record," Sampras said. "To be put in the same sentence as a Laver and those guys is — you can't have a more flattering comparison."

Pioline could only stand and watch the postmatch proceedings, just as he had stood and watched Sampras serve him off the court all afternoon. Sampras lost four service points in the first set and three in the second. In each set he also broke Pioline's serve early to pave his way to victory.

Sampras's only moments of fallibility — if they could even be called that — occurred in the third set. Ahead 30-15 and serving in the second game, Sampras double-faulted for the first time. The error was met with audible gasps and a low rumbling from the crowd, which seemed to buzz with surprise at what it had seen.

Two points later, Pioline reached deuce on Sampras's serve for the first time in the match, and, for a split second, it seemed some drama might unfold. Standing to receive, Pioline looked like a cat ready to pounce at the slightest opportunity — his legs tensed, his hair seeming to stand slightly on end. Sampras made the toss for his serve, Pioline sprung from his crouch, and the ball boomed straight down the middle for an ace. Sagging, Pioline walked the baseline, his spirits diminished, and hit the next return long to lose the game.

"It's normal to be tight when you play that kind of match and especially when you are playing Pete because he doesn't give you air, you know," Pioline said. "You cannot breathe against him because he's serving big and he's returning good and so it's difficult."

Sampras held serve in 116 of 118 service games in the tournament, with a 97-game streak in the middle. Pioline's only other chance to cut into that run of success occurred in the eighth game of the third set, when Sampras double-faulted — for the second, and final, time — at deuce. His next two serves were winners.

"When you [are] a break down and you have his serve in front of you, it's very difficult to believe you can break, that you can come back," Pioline said. "When he gets the break, he's serving even better because he doesn't want to give you a chance to come back."

The only player to have any semblance of success against Sampras here — 16th-seeded Petr Korda — said after their five-set, fourth-round match that Sampras served better when the sky was cloudy and overcast. Today, the sun shone on Wimbledon, and it seemed to bother Sampras not one bit.

"I don't know what happened with the serves, to tell you the truth," Sampras said. "They just clicked. They just clicked for every match I played. ... It was the shot that won me the tournament. This is the best I think I've ever served in my career."

And it is growing more and more evident that Sampras's "best" is perhaps the best ever, given that his incredible serve comes in the context of an all-around game Boris Becker termed "the best ever" this week.

The question now is, how long can he sustain it? Borg retired at age 25. John McEnroe won his last Grand Slam title at the same age. And, a few weeks shy of his 26th birthday, Sampras is the oldest man to win Wimbledon this decade. As far as he is concerned, though, he is just starting to reach his peak.

"I really have no fear in the game," Sampras said. "I feel like I can get better, I can improve and I can have another opportunity in a couple of months to win the U.S. Open, and that's where I'm at."

Wimbledon Notes:
Australians Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde won their fifth straight Wimbledon men's doubles title, equaling a record set nearly a century ago.

Woodbridge and Woodforde — known as the Woodies and seeded No. 1 — beat the Dutch team of Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (9-7), 5-7, 6-3. Their five straight titles tie a record set when Reggie Doherty and Laurie Doherty won five in a row from 1897-1901. They also won three other times for a record eight overall.

In women's doubles, American Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva of Belarus won their fourth Wimbledon title and their 14th Grand Slam as a team. They defeated American Nicole Arendt and Manon Bollegraf of the Netherlands, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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