WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — WIMBLEDON, England -- The good news for Cedric Pioline is he advanced to the Wimbledon final yesterday.
The bad news is, so did Pete Sampras.
Pioline, of France, sent Michael Stich, of Germany, into retirement, winning a taut, terrific semifinal, 6-7 (2-7), 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4.
In an earlier match, Sampras, the No. 1 seed, played like a man on a mission, overwhelming Todd Woodbridge, of Australia, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3).
In tomorrow's final at Centre Court, Sampras will aim to become the first American man to win four Wimbledon singles titles.
And he'll face a player who appears tailor-made for his style. Pioline has lost seven straight times to Sampras, including a blowout in the 1993 U.S. Open final.
But Pioline is not intimidated.
Two years ago, he came to Wimbledon and played the King of Grass, Boris Becker, losing a sensational five-set match.
"Everybody was saying then, 'What is your feeling to play like in the Becker Garden?' I said, 'Yes, I was in a position to beat him,' " Pioline said.
"Against Sampras, I will play my match and try to do my best and if I win, I'll be twice happy that I'm there," he said. "And if I lose this match, I'll be disappointed."
The Pioline-Stich match was Wimbledon at its best, a five-set drama played out at dusk, with a frantic Centre Court crowd screaming on every point.
Stich, the gangly 1991 champion with a bad shoulder, a bad back and a bad temper, stood toe-to-toe with the acrobatic Pioline.
The match turned on one point, as Stich launched a double fault to lose his serve to open the fifth set.
Pioline then used his quick hands -- and feet -- to stage a few great escapes on serve to close out the match.
"I'm flying," Pioline said after the victory.
At the net, the players embraced and Stich said that this was his last match. He told Pioline: "Thanks for making it so exciting.
"I would have loved to win, but he played his part and he played that great," Stich said. "He kept me going, brought the best out of me. That's really what I was hoping for in this match. You really want to feel the atmosphere."
Stich's departure was another sign that an era of great German tennis is ending. Thursday, it was Becker who lost to Sampras, quit Wimbledon and revealed his impending departure from future Grand Slam events. The tennis world is also awaiting word on Steffi Graf's future after knee surgery.
At Wimbledon, though, the attention is quickly shifting to the American star, Sampras.
Yesterday, he was nearly perfect.
He hit winners on the run. He slammed second-serve aces. He cracked improbably angled returns.
"I couldn't play any better," Sampras said. "In a couple of sets, I was on a great roll. But it's hard to maintain that level on the grass. But I'm very pleased with the way I've been playing."
Has he actually improved after winning three Wimbledons from 1993 to 1995?
"I've improved a little bit, but I think I was pretty good back then," he said. "It's not that complicated, guys."
About the only thing that went wrong for Sampras is that he lost one service game in the third set. It was the first time he had dropped serve since the opening set of his opening match against Mikael Tillstrom of Sweden. The perfect serving streak was 97 games.
"I don't remember a Wimbledon that I've served as well," Sampras said.
Woodbridge, the designated Sampras victim, was impressed.
Back in 1989, Sampras made his Wimbledon debut and was beaten by Woodbridge in the opening round.
"I think he always had the talent, but he had to perhaps just learn a little bit more about playing on grass," Woodbridge said. "The first few years here at Wimbledon he didn't really do that well."
But nothing could have prepared Woodbridge for the exhibition Sampras put on yesterday.
"Not many people get to appreciate how good a player he is because they're not on the court with him," Woodbridge said. "I at least got to see that side of it."
Sampras was so dominant, he even won a point after sprawling face down on the grass. He popped up and cracked a running forehand.
"It was like, 'Can you give me something?' " Woodbridge said. "Give me a couple of free points, give me something for nothing, and he wasn't going to do that."
Woodbridge, who has won more than 40 doubles titles with Mark Woodforde, said he could have used his partner against Sampras "to cover some ground."
"There were winners flying all over the place," he said. "He really just played fantastic."
Pete Sampras (1), Tampa, Fla., def. Todd Woodbridge, Australia, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3); Cedric Pioline, France, def. Michael Stich, Germany, 6-7 (2-7), 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4.
Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis (2), Netherlands, def. Martin Damm and Pavel Vizner (13), Czech Republic, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4.
Sabine Appelmans, Belgium, and Miriam Oremans, Netherlands (12), def. Lindsay Davenport, Newport Beach, Calif., and Jana Novotna, Czech Republic (3), walkover.
Gigi Fernandez, Aspen, Colo., and Natasha Zvereva (1), Belarus, def. Mary Joe Fernandez, Key Biscayne, Fla., and Lisa Raymond (5), Wayne, Pa., 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.
Larisa Neiland, Latvia, and Helena Sukova (4), Czech Republic, def. Els Callens, Belgium, and Ginger Helgeson Nielsen, Alpine, Calif., 6-4, 6-4.
Nicole Arendt, Gainesville, Fla., and Manon Bollegraf (6), Netherlands, def. Martina Hingis, Switzerland, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2), Spain, 6-4, 5-7, 6-2.
Pub Date: 7/05/97