Men's final promises same style, new plot


WIMBLEDON, England -- This is about second acts, tennis legends and the greatest men's title of them all.

Today, Boris Becker meets Pete Sampras in the Wimbledon final.

Sure, it's not the championship nearly everyone expected, it's not the clash of styles and temperaments that a Sampras-Andre Agassi confrontation promised.

But Sampras vs. Becker, server vs. server, will do just fine.

They say there are no great second acts in tennis, but that hasn't stopped Becker, 27, a couple of years past his prime and 10 years past winning the first of his three Wimbledon titles. He beat Cedric Pioline in a five-set quarterfinal drama. He took a one-hour tennis beating from Agassi in the semifinals before coming back to win in four sets and reach his seventh final.

But to understand how improbable it is for Becker to win another Wimbledon title, consider this: The only other Wimbledon champ to bracket titles in a decade was Bill Tilden, who won in 1920, 1921 and 1930.

Becker has talked for several days about how he has been forced to improve his game, to refine and experiment to keep pace with a younger generation of big servers.

"I'm still serving and volleying, still able to hang in there when I'm down," he said. "But the speed has increased so much. You know, in 1985, there was nobody who could return my first serve like Andre Agassi could. You have to change your whole game. You have to see what works and what doesn't work."

For Becker, what works now is his ability to remain patient,

whether it is trying to keep in a match he has no business of winning, or spending more than a year with a new coach, Nick Bollettieri, perfecting a new style.

In his past two Wimbledon semifinals, Becker was taken out by Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic.

"I didn't have a chance in those matches," he said. "They were basically blowing me off the court."

Still, he hung around, and he finally got to another final.

But facing Sampras isn't like meeting Agassi. Sampras does not come unglued. He can be as cold and heartless a competitor as he is as elegant a player. To win his first U.S. Open in 1990, Sampras had to stop another second tennis act right in its tracks, wiping out John McEnroe in a four-set semifinal.

"You dream of getting to the final," Sampras said. "This is my third one. I hope to make it a threepeat."

A win today would put Sampras in a different class. The last man to win three in a row at Wimbledon was Bjorn Borg, who was on his way to five straight championships.

Head to head, Sampras leads Becker 6-5. He has won 16 of 29 sets played against Becker and he has won three of their final meetings. Sampras also has won 20 straight matches at Wimbledon.

But here's the equalizer: both men have five Grand Slam titles.

"I'm ravenous," Sampras said. "This is the biggest tournament in the world, and you do whatever you can to win it. You dive. You scrap. You claw. Whatever you can to try to do it again."

Someone asked Becker if he, too, was ravenous. He smiled and said: "You are going to have two very hungry boys out there."

Said Agassi: "I feel like Pete does everything like Boris, except a little bit better.

" The only thing really that I think Boris does well that Pete might struggle with at times is Boris has a tendency to close you off. He won't make a lot of careless errors and let you sneak breaks back.

"Pete isn't that way. Pete can miss some high volleys. So, I have to say, if they both play their best tennis, I like Pete. But they have to play their best tennis for that to be the case. And who knows what's going to happen?"

So the table is set. Sampras against Becker.

Breakfast at Wimbledon gets no better than this.

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