Sampras serves up a big win


WIMBLEDON, England -- The best news for the men's professional tennis tour comes not from the ATP, the USTA or Grand Slam officials. It comes from Pete Sampras.

"I've tried the wide-bodied rackets," Sampras said. "But I can't control any shots. I can't control them at all."

Thank goodness.

Sampras already has the biggest, most powerful, awe-inspiring, super -- enough already -- serve in the business.

Yesterday, he used it in the Wimbledon quarterfinals for a Centre Court victory over Michael Chang, 6-4, 6-1, 6-3.

It was Sampras' fifth straight three-setter, putting him on course to become the first champion on this grass since Bjorn Borg in 1976 to win every set.

Five matches, 15 sets, 87 aces.

He hit the showers by 3 p.m., when Boris Becker, who started play at the same time, was just reaching the middle of his second set with Christian Bergstrom on Court 1.

Becker eventually won, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-3, after many long, entertaining rallies. In tomorrow's semifinal, he will face Goran Ivanisevic, who out-served Guy Forget, 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-3), 6-4.

Sampras, the top seed, plays Todd Martin, a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 winner over Wayne Ferreira.

"At the moment, I think Pete has really reached the peak of his career," said Chang, who won only 17 points off Sampras' serve -- and only seven in the first two sets.

"I think Pete has matured in every part of his game," Chang said. "A couple years ago, you could definitely say he was weak in quite a few different areas. I could get inside his head by getting a lot of balls back. But you can't do that anymore. He has matured mentally. He's stronger in pressure situations. He's not afraid of long rallies. And now I don't get as many chances to get balls back because he's serving out of my range, out of my reach."

Every day is like this.

Sampras comes out for a match, takes care of business and then heads home for a relaxing afternoon with girlfriend Delaina Mulcahy, while everyone else is still out on the courts beating up tennis balls.

"I pass Big Ben every day on my way home," Sampras said. "That's about all the sightseeing I've done. Usually, I go back, get a massage and have a bite to eat and then I watch the tennis for a while on TV."

He's No. 1 in the tennis world. Defending champion at Wimbledon. A multimillionaire. But, still, an ordinary man.

He's not perfect.

"He can't cook, that's for sure," said Chang, who has known Sampras since they were 8. "He eats a lot of spaghetti and tomato sauce and says he likes it very much."

Yesterday, Sampras liked everything about his game. There was a moment, in the second set, when he felt as if he were entering a zone.

"You can't really zone on grass," he had said earlier. But yesterday, he modified that.

"Everything just really clicked, which is when it is the most fun for a player," he said. "I was getting close to a zone. I mean, there were times where I felt anything I hit was going to be a drop-volley winner or a good-volley winner, and, if there's one thing I didn't do well today, it was serve, which is my best shot, and that's kind of nitpicking a little bit.

"My tennis today was pretty much flawless."

He's an on-court tennis perfectionist, he says, but an off-court, laid-back, everyday Joe.

He drives himself to Wimbledon, eschewing a limousine. The week before the tournament, he arrived here for a practice via subway.

"It's tough enough to go out there and play good tennis and try to win," Sampras said. "I don't need to add to everything by adding all the trappings of some kind of star lifestyle.

"I don't open myself up to really controversial statements, because I'm not really comfortable in that kind of situation.

"So I have a pretty low-key attitude. I stay in quite a bit. I haven't seen any plays or anything. I just lay back and relax. It's a bit like being at home. Everything is unpacked. I've been here for almost four weeks, so it feels like I'm really settled in, and I think it's reflected in my tennis."

His only focus is to defend his title and become the first back-to-back champion since Becker in 1986.

But Sampras' focus off the court was distracted for at least a moment last week, when his favorite NBA team, the Houston Rockets, was playing for the championship.

"I stayed up to 2 a.m. to watch Game 7 here and see Houston

win," he said. "I got excited and nervous for them. I wanted [Hakeem] Olajuwon to win. I like him. He seems like a class guy, just watching him play on the court and the interviews I've seen, it seems like he doesn't really rub it into another center's face. He just goes and tries to win."

Like you? he was asked.

"Like me," he said.

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