WIMBLEDON, England -- There goes Pete Sampras, the best there ever was.
Wearing white, slamming winners, and turning improbable shots into effortless artistry, he is the natural of men's tennis. Nobody beats him in a slugfest on grass. And nobody still playing creates so much modern tennis history.
But yesterday, Sampras gave himself and Wimbledon something special. He went into uncharted territory against a ferocious rival named Goran Ivanisevic. For the first time in a Grand Slam final, he fought through a fifth set. And he won a high-wire, serve-and-volley spectacular to put himself into the record books.
Sampras beat Ivanisevic, 6-7 (2-7), 7-6 (11-9), 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, to win his fifth Wimbledon men's title, tying the modern mark established by Bjorn Borg.
It was a nail-biting match that pulled the best from both players. And when it ended, with Sampras winning a battle of volleys at the net, the players were exhausted and the staid Centre Court crowd was cheering.
Sampras sat for a few moments, with his chin buried in a towel. And Ivanisevic was utterly devastated, draping a towel over his head, beaten in his third and perhaps last Wimbledon final.
But he was beaten by the best.
As he walked off the court, Sampras sounded dazed and somewhat awed by his latest accomplishment. He has 11 Grand Slam triumphs, tying Borg and Rod Laver, just one behind the record of 12 held by Roy Emerson.
And he has those five Wimbledons, matching Borg and H.L. Doherty, who played before World War I, and standing two behind W.C. Renshaw, who played in the late 19th century.
"It's just so hard to believe, Borg's five, I thought would never be broken," Sampras said. "I think I've got some years left in me, that I can hopefully do this again."
The kid who grew up idolizing Laver has grown into a 26-year-old man and the most dominant player of his or any other era.
But even legends get nervous. Sampras admitted that playing in a Wimbledon final is like nothing else in tennis.
"You wake up in the morning and you kind of have a pit in your stomach," he said. "You don't want to get to this point and come up short."
Sampras beat Ivanisevic because he was tougher and more focused on the big points. He beat him with second serves in a second-set tiebreaker. And he used all his strength and savvy to take the fifth and take the title.
And he also broke Ivanisevic's heart.
Ivanisevic played with fire and guts, and crowded Sampras like a heavyweight shoving a rival into the ropes. For 93 minutes, he bullied the champion around the dust and grass of a rutted court. And he had him on the run in the second-set tie-breaker, twice getting to set point on a pair of Sampras second serves.
And the champ was scared.
"I felt the match slipping away in the breaker," Sampras said. "I said, 'God, this could be Goran's year.' "
But it wasn't. Ivanisevic batted the set-point, second-serves into the net, lost the tiebreaker, and saw his chance to win Wimbledon slip away.
"It feels bad," Ivanisevic said. "I cannot describe it. It's the worst moment in my life. I know I've had some bad moments, when you are sick or when somebody dies, But for me, this is the worst thing ever. Nobody died yet, but it's tough."
Not even the roar of the Centre Court crowd, which pulled for Ivanisevic and saluted him in defeat, could console him. He wanted to win this badly. He wanted to win for himself and his country, Croatia. And he wanted it to be the start of a sporting double, with Croatia's national team still alive in the World Cup.
But after the match, he couldn't even bear the thought of going to see a soccer match.
"I cannot cheer anybody now," he said. "I can only kill myself. Now, I'm not good for anybody."
Sampras said he understood how Ivanisevic felt. For all his success, he still rues losing two Grand Slam finals.
"I feel bad for Goran," Sampras said. "I really do."
But in the fifth, Sampras was simply better. He got the service break to go up 4-2 by nailing a forehand return to Ivanisevic's feet. And then he broke him again to take the title.
"You don't want to make a mistake," Sampras said.
And he didn't.
Only two weeks ago there were whispers on the men's tour that Sampras was unmotivated, that he was about to be toppled as the world's No. 1 player.
"You don't play well for four months and people think you're done," Sampras said. "It's flattering to be at that standard, that high level. And it's not easy to do that month after month. So, it wasn't surprising to hear the talk. I guess I'm out of my slump."
It was the lure of Wimbledon that brought Sampras back. And it was Ivanisevic's gallant challenge that forced him to play his best when it mattered.
"I think the one thing that elevates my tennis in this place is the court, the historical meaning that this tournament had for me as a kid growing up," he said. "The older I get, I want to enjoy these victories as much as I can."
NOTES: Just 24 hours after claiming the Wimbledon singles title, Jana Novotna added a doubles victory, teaming with Martina Hingis to defeat No. 2 Lindsay Davenport and Natasha Zvereva, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6. Hingis and Novotna shared $256,000 for their win, repeating their French Open triumph over the same opponents. Mixed doubles went to unseeded Max Mirnyi of Belarus and Serena Williams of the United States, who defeated No. 5 Mahesh Bhupathi of India and Mirjana Lucic of Croatia, 6-4, 6-4.
Other Wimbledon champions:
Men's doubles -- Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis, Netherlands (1); Men's over 35 doubles -- Gene Mayer, Woodmere, N.Y., and Tim Wilkison, Charlotte, N.C.; Men's over 45 doubles -- Marty Riessen, Dallas, and Sherwood Stewart, The Woodlands, Texas; Women's over 35 doubles -- Pam Shriver, Baltimore, and Elizabeth Smylie, Australia; Boy's singles -- Roger Federer (5), Switzerland; Girls singles -- Katerina Srebotnik (7), Slovenia; Boys doubles -- Roger Federer, Switzerland, and Olivier Rochus, Belgium; Girls doubles -- Eva Dyrberg, Denmark, and Jelena Kostanic, Croatia.
Pete Sampras yesterday picked up his fifth Wimbledon men's singles title and 11th Grand Slam championship. How he ranks among the all-time best:
No. Player, Years
7 W. Renshaw, 1881-86, 1889
5 L. Doherty, 1902-06
5 Bjorn Borg, 1976-80
5 Pete Sampras, 1993-95, 97-98
Grand Slam titles
Player, Rec., Pct.
Roy Emerson, 12-3, .800
Pete Sampras, 11-2, .846
Bjorn Borg, 11-5, .688
Rod Laver, 11-6, .647
Men's box score
A look at the men's championship match at Wimbledon. Top-seeded Pete Sampras defeated No. 14 seed Goran Ivanisevic, 6-7 (2-7), 7-6 (11-9), 6-4, 3-6, 6-2:
.................... Sampras ..... Iv'sevic
Aces ............... 12 .......... 32
Serve winners ...... 71 .......... 83
Double faults ...... 8 ........... 20
1st serve pct. ..... 55 .......... 56
Winners ............ 80 .......... 83
Break points ....... 4-14 ........ 2-9
Ret. pts. won ...... 8 ........... 8
Net points ......... 106-143 ..... 86-127
Pub Date: 7/06/98