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Sampras Powers Into Fourth Final

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 1997; Page F01

WIMBLEDON, England, July 4 -- Pete Sampras and Todd Woodbridge were in the third set of their Wimbledon semifinal this afternoon, when Woodbridge won a point on a beautiful forehand down the line and some Centre Court fans screamed, "C'mon Todd!" Barely a second later, a woman's voice responded.

"C'mon Pete," she hollered, "before we get rained on!"

To Woodbridge's dismay, the woman was on the mark. Today's match was far less about who would win than it was about how long it would take Sampras to get the job done. The answer was three sets and 102 minutes, as No. 1-ranked Sampras powered to a 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3) triumph, and moved one victory from becoming the first American man to win four Wimbledon titles.

Sampras will face unseeded Frenchman Cedric Pioline in Sunday's final, when Sampras bids for his 10th Grand Slam title. Pioline defeated Germany's Michael Stich, 6-7 (7-2), 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4, in an emotional match that lasted nearly until darkness. Stich had said he would retire at the end of this season, but -- in a move similar to that of his countryman, Boris Becker, on the same court the previous afternoon -- Stich said he was through with tennis when he leaned over the net to congratulate Pioline.

"Basically, I made up my mind after the match right away that that was going to be my last match," said Stich, 28. "And I just said, `Thanks for making it so exciting.' "

After his quarterfinal loss to Sampras on Thursday, the popular Becker told Sampras at the net that he was ending his much-decorated Wimbledon career. Add that news to the stunning quarterfinal losses of both British hopefuls -- Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski -- and there was almost a diminished feel to Wimbledon at the start of today's play. It was as if most of the life had been taken from this tournament, the Centre Court crowd suffering something akin to a collective hangover.

It quickly became apparent, though, that there is one thing that still makes this tournament worth watching. And that is to see how high Sampras can raise the level of his remarkable game.

Pragmatic about his role as today's sacrificial lamb, Woodbridge summed up the current state of Sampras's play in the postmatch news conference. Someone started a question with the phrase "We know that Sampras is human, but . . . " and Woodbridge quickly interrupted.

"Not by much."

Better known as half of the world-class doubles team "The Woodies" with fellow Australian Mark Woodforde, Woodbridge never has been a dominant singles player. His stated goal for this year is to make it into the top 20 in singles (he is currently ranked 37th) and never before had he made it beyond Wimbledon's third round. He has, however, hoisted his share of Wimbledon hardware: He and Woodforde have won four consecutive titles and are bidding for a fifth.

On court today, though, the compact Woodbridge looked like one-half of a boxed set, and every time he went to his chair for a changeover, one could almost imagine Woodforde materializing in the empty seat next to his. Instead, Woodforde was in the stands watching his partner, though Woodbridge would not have minded if he had picked up a racket and joined him on court.

"Maybe [it would] help cover some ground," Woodbridge said, smiling ruefully. "Because there were winners flying all over the place."

When Sampras arrived at the All England club two weeks ago, his previous match results gave no indication that he would play this sensationally. He had just lost in the quarterfinals of his grass-court tuneup tournament, had lost in the third round of the French Open prior to that, and had lost in the first round of his three previous tournaments.

But there is something about Wimbledon that brings out the best in Sampras. As he said today, he has "learned to love grass." The surface is perfect for his serve and his style, and punishing for those who cannot match his power. This, then, is perhaps the most telling Sampras statistic from this Wimbledon: Out of the 104 games he has served, he has been broken twice.

The first of those came in his second service game of the tournament, against Sweden's Mikael Tillstrom. The second came in the fourth game of the third set today, when Sampras was up 30-love but was broken when Woodbridge ran off four straight points, the final one a backhand volley winner.

"I don't remember a Wimbledon that I've served as well as I have this year," Sampras said. "I don't remember the previous years when I've won here, what I've done with my serve. But I'm serving and volleying well, so that's obviously very important."

There are a lot of impressive power servers in men's tennis -- Goran Ivanisevic, Mark Philippoussis and Rusedski spring to mind. What sets Sampras apart, though, is his second serve. He serves the second ball as freely and forcefully as the first. In other words, to face Sampras is to get almost no openings.

Woodbridge found that out in the first two sets, when Sampras served so perfectly -- and returned so well -- that his game seemed flawless, if that were possible on this surface. And when the third set opened, Sampras won a long rally in the first game despite falling down in the middle of the point.

"Oh, no," Woodbridge said to himself at that moment. "Can you give me something?"

Sampras, of course, had no intention of letting up. He wants the Wimbledon title he lost last year when he fell to eventual champion Richard Krajicek in the quarterfinals. And now Pioline -- who is ranked 44th and has never beaten Sampras in seven meetings -- is the last obstacle between him and that goal.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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