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Game, set, mismatch expected for men Sampras has mastered Pioline in 7 matches

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — WIMBLEDON, England -- This is between Pete Sampras and history.

Today, Sampras faces Cedric Pioline of France in the men's final at Wimbledon. And he aims for greatness, trying to become the first American man to win four Wimbledon singles titles.

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John McEnroe couldn't do it. Neither could Jimmy Connors.

But here's Sampras, all grace and grit, at the height of his game, and still, there is a sense that fans don't care much.

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Around Wimbledon, he earns polite applause.

Back home in America, he gets lost in a galaxy of big-time stars.

Sampras gets sick during matches -- and wins.

He cries during matches -- and wins.

The media labels him "dull."

And yet, he's 36-2 at Wimbledon since reaching his first semifinal here in 1992. He owns nine Grand Slam singles titles, three behind Roy Emerson's record of 12.

He has lost in only two Grand Slam finals.

Boris Becker calls him the best player in history.

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Even Michael Stich, a moody ex-Wimbledon champion, gives Sampras his due.

"He is a person who just focuses on tennis, day and night, and I think that's part of his success," Stich said.

When he talks about his game, Sampras doesn't give much away.

He held serve for 97 straight games at Wimbledon before he was broken by Todd Woodbridge in Friday's semifinals. Someone asked Sampras if he was actually trying to get through the tournament without being broken.

"No," he said, a look of disdain on his face.

What was the best part of winning the semifinals?

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"Getting a day off," he said.

Was he upset about last year, when he lost to Richard Krajicek in the Wimbledon quarterfinals?

"You know, it doesn't hurt me," he said. "It's disappointing. I mean, I'm not going to be sad about it. You can't win every tournament you play. Sure, I was bummed out for a while, but, you know, you have to regroup. You have the U.S. Open coming up in a couple of months. So, there's always something to look forward to if you don't win here."

But clearly, winning Wimbledon matters to Sampras.

Even as a teen-ager, he had an understanding of tennis history -- and greatness. His tennis idol was Rod Laver. His tennis goal was to win big titles, starting with the 1990 U.S. Open, when he was 19 years, 28 days old.

"I put so much importance on the majors," he said.

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In Pioline, Sampras faces a potential punching bag.

Sampras is 7-0 against Pioline. He crushed him in the 1993 U.S. Open final. He crushed him in last year's round of 16 at Wimbledon. He has lost only three of 19 sets against Pioline.

"Credric is a great athlete out there," Sampras said.

Actually, Pioline, the first Frenchman to reach the Wimbledon final since 1946, and the 11th unseeded finalist in Wimbledon history, has played with a lot of heart.

He beat Stich in a magnificent semifinal, filled with ground strokes and grunts, as the players battled at dusk.

Pioline said unlike in 1993, when he was in the U.S. Open final and in a daze, he now understands what it means to reach a Grand Slam championship match.

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"My game is more mature, and I'm more mature" he said. "At the U.S. Open, it just happened so fast. I didn't realize what I was doing. Now, I know what I did to be in the final, to reach the final. So, things are different."

But for Pioline, things are also the same.

He's in a final. And so is Sampras.

What Sampras really needs, though, is a rival, not an opponent.

Today marks the beginning of the tennis future for the next few years.

Stefan Edberg is finished. Becker is going. Andre Agassi is in limbo.

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Watch Sampras closely. He's among the last American tennis stars of the century.

"The thing that concerns me is after we're done, you know, there's really not another young American coming up right now," he said.

"So I think the Americans are really going to have to enjoy what they have right now because I really don't see anyone coming up who's going to do what I've done and Andre [Agassi] and John [McEnroe] and Michael [Chang]."

Sampras stands alone.

Road to final

How the men's finalists advanced at Wimbledon (seeds in parentheses):

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Pete Sampras (1)

Round, Opponent, Sets, Score

First, Mikael Tillstrom, 3, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2

Second, Hendrik Dreekmann, 3, 7-6 (7-2), 7-5, 7-5

Third, Byron Black, 3, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2

Fourth, Petr Korda, (16), 5, 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (8-10), 6-7 (1-7), 6-4

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Quarters, Boris Becker, (8), 4, 6-1, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1, 6-4

Semis, Todd Woodbridge, 3, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3)

Cedric Pioline

First, Marcelo Charpentier, 4, 5-7, 6-3, 7-5, 6-2

Second, Javier Frana, walkover

Third, Wayne Ferreira, (15), 3, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3

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Fourth, Brett Steven, 4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5

Quarters, Gerg Rusedski, 4, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3

Semis, Michael Stich, 5, 6-7 (2-7), 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4

Wimbledon finals

Women: Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, defeated Jana Novotna (3), Czech Republic, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Men: Pete Sampras (1), Tampa, Fla., vs. Cedric Pioline, France

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When: Today, 9 a.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Head-to-head meetings: Sampras leads 7-0

Pub Date: 7/06/97


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