WIMBLEDON, England -- Pete Sampras reigned at Wimbledon yesterday. With Princess Diana bouncing in her seat and cheering him on, Sampras pounded Jim Courier into the grass on Centre Court and cleared up any doubt about who's No. 1.
"This was huge for me," said Sampras, after winning, 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (8-6), 3-6, 6-3. "If I would have lost this title after being up two sets, I would have been devastated. It probably would have taken me six months or a year to get over it. But it didn't happen.
He won with steely concentration, by mixing the delivery of a second serve that was as big and powerful as his first and by never allowing Courier to establish a rhythm.
When he wrapped it up in four sets with a deep backhand volley that Courier pushed into the net, Sampras punched both fists into the air and smiled at the 13,000 assembled at Centre Court.
"I was excited as I've ever been," said Sampras, who could not stop smiling after the match. "I was ecstatic. When I won the U.S. Open [in 1990], it happened so fast, I could never really appreciate it.
"But now, three years later, I know what it takes to win a Grand Slam. I know how much work has to go into it. And I can't explain the feeling you have when you're at the net and the shot doesn't come back and it's all kind of a blur, and the next thing you know you've won -- you've won Wimbledon."
For the first time, at age 21.
Sampras, the introvert, suddenly became an extrovert. He accepted the bright gold trophy at Centre Court and, as tradition dictates, he paraded it to Wimbledon's four corners for all to see. At one point, he became so excited he almost dropped it, when he tried to hold it in one hand and shake his fist in the air with the other.
Later, in the post-match interview, he again lowered his reserve, allowing himself to answer a non-tennis question for the first time during the tournament.
Had he noticed Princess Diana, sitting on the edge of her seat, clapping through the final two games and cheering like crazy for him?
"Maybe, yes," he said. And then, from somewhere out of the blue, and lifting a page from Andre Agassi's fun book, he added, "Maybe she has a crush on me."
It was a day for fun for Sampras. He has been trying to win his second Grand Slam event for three years, and, for the past month, he has been trying to silence critics of the world ranking system, who contended Courier deserved to be No. 1 by virtue of winning the Australian Open and making the French Open final.
Yesterday, he did both while playing his friend Courier on the Fourth of July in the biggest match of their careers and having the best of it.
Neither player dropped a serve in the first set. In fact, no one even got close to a deuce game until the second game of the second set, and neither's serve was broken until the third set.
"Pete was just a lot better on his second serve than I was," Courier said. "He serves like that indoors, too -- 95 to 100 mph on hissecond serve into the corners.
"There are no would-haves or could-haves in this match. I did what I could, but I got outplayed. But that doesn't make it any easier to take."
Courier had no expectations when he arrived at Wimbledon two weeks ago. He had lost in the final of the French Open to a clay-court specialist from Spain, Sergi Bruguera. Being a player who prefers to stay on the baseline, Courier was certain a grass-court specialist would knock him off at Wimbledon long before the final.
"I had no ambitions when I came here, and that probably allowed me to play better," said Courier, who had a set point in the second-set tiebreaker that could have evened the match. "It was a very good run for me, and I can take a lot of confidence in my ability to play on grass home with me. But it still stinks to get this close and lose -- for the second time in a Grand Slam in a month.
"I've lost the Wimbledon final. There will be a lot of other finals in my career, but I don't know if there will ever be another Wimbledon final for me."
The first tiebreaker came and went quickly, with Sampras taking the first point off Courier's first serve and running off to win, 7-3.
But in the second tiebreaker, Courier had a set point at 6-5, and thought he had the point.
"He hit a choke volley, and I thought it was going out because he didn't stick it. He just sort of pushed it there," Courier said. "But that's the way the cookie crumbles. It was not a confident shot, but it dropped just inside the line, and it counts."
Courier finally broke through in the third set, when Sampras began feeling the heat. The on-court temperature soared to more than 100 degrees, as the Wimbledon fortnight came to an end without a drop of rain.
Sampras said he felt the release of a lot of nervous energy after escapingthe break point and winning the second set for the 7-6, 7-6 advantage.
"I was so high, and then I went straight down," said Sampras, who was broken twice in the third set. "I got a little down on myself. Jim's not going to give up -- and I knew that. In the fourth set, I felt better, and I could have gone a fifth if I had had to. Being up two sets, I definitely would have sucked it up for a fifth to win Wimbledon."
Despite the obvious control he showed in this match, Sampras said he had a few nervous moments. Unwanted thoughts entered into his head.
The 1992 U.S. Open passed through. He had been up a set against Stefan Edberg there and lost. He had been close to other Grand Slam events, but his return of serve let him down in quarterfinal and semifinal matches.
"Strange thoughts," he called them. As they flickered through his head, a few balls bounced off his tennis shoes as he bounced them inpreparation for his own serve.
Sampras took a deep breath here and there, did several deep knee bends to keep himself loose, and told himself over and over: " 'Just stay calm. Just keep doing what you're doing. You're doing all right.'
"I think the real difference for me in this final was that I believed if I kept returning serve the way I was, it was the one shot that would win me the tournament," Sampras said. "That was the shot I hit well against [Boris] Becker in the semifinals, and that was a big match for me.
"This match was different. I was playing more baseline rallies, trying to keep the ball away from Jim's forehand, and I wanted to hit the big serve early and not let Jim dictate the play. But the return of serve, that's what the past champions -- Agassi, Becker, Edberg -- that's what they all do real well, and I had to do it real well for two weeks."
He did it well enough to win Wimbledon yesterday and keep Di on the edge of her seat.
SAMPRAS-COURIER BOX SCORE
The box score of No. 1 Pete Sampras' 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (8-6), 3-6, 6-3 victory over No. 3 Jim Courier for the men's singles championship yesterday at Wimbledon:
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Sampras.. .. .. .. Courier
Aces.. .. .. .. .. .. .. 22 .. .. .. .. .. .. 9
Double faults .. .. .. .. 6 .. .. .. .. .. ... 6
1st serve percentage .. .. 62 .. .. .. .. .. .. 54
Pct. 1st serve pts. won.. 82 .. .. .. .. .. .. 77
Pct. 2nd serve pts. won .. 67 .. .. .. .. .. .. 58
Service games held .. .. ..19 .. .. .. .. .. .. 19
Break points against .. .. 2 .. .. .. .. .. .. 5
Games broken .. .. .. .. .. 2 .. .. ... .. .. .. 2
Pct. backcourt pts. won .. 41 .. .. .. .. .. .. 50
Points won at net .. .. .. 32 .. .. .. ... ... 19
Total points won .. .. .. 135 .. .. .. .. .. .. 120
Time of match .. 2:58