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

July 13, 1997

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 Cedric 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 Newcombe 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."

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.'"

He told no one else--not DePalmer, not any official at the All
England Club and not former Wimbledon champion Michael Stich,
who, in a sad coincidence for Germany, would himself retire
after losing in the semifinals to Pioline. Becker won four
matches at Wimbledon, all in straight sets, but had no chance
against Sampras's serve and felt oddly at peace about it. During
a three-hour rain delay in their match, he sat up in the royal
box, alone, reading Norman Mailer's account of the 1974
Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire and stealing glances at Centre Court.
Later, when his final backhand flew long and he shook Sampras's
hand and began walking off the court, only Sampras had any idea
what had just happened. "I was floored," Sampras said later.

Twice, Becker turned to the unsuspecting crowd and bowed deeply.
An hour later he was walking fast through the grounds toward
Gate 13 with that familiar rolling gait, bag over his shoulder,
the milling crowds not recognizing him until he had passed. His
face was blank, but with each step closer to the black iron
doors he thought, This is it. The last time. The last time.

"I'm glad I made it out alive, to tell you the truth," Becker
said that night. "There were difficult times. I played 14 years
in a row. The first ones were very hectic, and all of a sudden I
became a star, and I didn't know how to handle everything. I was
always praying that I somehow would have a long career, and I
managed to do that without any major scars in my soul. I'm not
drug-addicted, I'm not alcoholic, I'm not three times divorced.
I'm quite normal. I manage to have a quite normal life. For me
that was always my biggest achievement."

A lone woman saw Becker just as he left Wimbledon, and she
applauded. He didn't slow down.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB MARTIN COVER AN AMERICAN CLASSIC FOUR-TIME WIMBLEDON CHAMPION PETE SAMPRAS COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Sampras's overpowering serve was broken only twice in seven matches. [Pete Sampras serving] COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Hingis's off-court comments about her opponents were as biting as her forehand drives. [Martina Hingis playing tennis] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: SIMON BRUTY Coming and going: Kournikova's run to the semis heralded a future star, while Becker's exit marked the end of a Wimbledon era. [Anna Kournikova playing tennis; Boris Becker playing tennis]

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