Singular glory for Sampras


WIMBLEDON, England - It was a scene out of another time, before retractable domes and glittering lights, before fake grass and fly-by-night stars.

With twilight falling, rain threatening and history wafting like incense at a tennis cathedral named Centre Court, a champion for the ages reached for greatness yesterday.

Pete Sampras won Wimbledon again.

He won it in a thriller of a men's singles final against Australia's Patrick Rafter, 6-7 (10-12), 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-2. He survived long rain delays and tense play, serving out the match at last light, with camera flashes flickering like fireflies, with the crowd breathless one moment and roaring the next.

When it ended, he was alone on the dying grass, arms thrust in the air, his eyes filled with tears. And later, he walked in that slouch-shouldered way of his, past officials, through the stands, up an aisle, over a railing and into his father's arms.

"I'll look back at these two weeks as the most difficult, the most satisfying," he said. "The fact that my parents were here - it was a great script that just really worked out well for me."

This was Sampras at the tennis summit, winning Wimbledon's men's singles title for the seventh time, tying the record established in the 19th century by William Renshaw. And he finally claimed a record 13th Grand Slam singles title, one more than Australia's Roy Emerson.

Historians may debate who the greatest modern player of them all is. Rod Laver won two Grand Slams seven years apart. Bjorn Borg took five straight Wimbledons. Andre Agassi claimed major titles on all surfaces. John McEnroe brought touch to the game, Jimmy Connors added grit, and Boris Becker provided power.

But no modern player has dominated Wimbledon and the men's circuit like Sampras, winner of every Grand Slam but the French Open on slow, red clay.

For Sampras, there was nothing unlucky about winning Grand Slam No. 13.

"I never, ever planned on ever breaking this record," he said.

And it may be a long, long time before someone does it again.

"It's possible," Sampras said. "I mean, the next person might be 8 years old hitting at a park somewhere around the world."

He got the record at his home away from home, Centre Court, a gorgeous bandbox with real grass, small seats and a sound and feel unlike any other stadium in the world.

And he had to beat a game and gutsy player, Rafter, fully recovered from major shoulder surgery in October.

It was like an old-time pitchers' duel, Sampras bringing heat and Rafter providing guile, nearly stealing the title by winning the first-set tiebreaker and grabbing a 4-1 lead in the second-set tiebreaker.

"I really felt like it was slipping away," Sampras said.

But it didn't. Rafter got nervous. He clubbed a volley into the net. He double-faulted. And he was sent back on his heels as Sampras ripped a forehand down the line and punched a fist into the air, grabbing hold of the tiebreaker and the title.

"From a matter of feeling like I was going to lose the match, I felt like I was going to win the match within two minutes," Sampras said. 'That's grass-court tennis."

Rafter admitted he became nervous. But it was no disgrace.

"We all choke," Sampras said. "No matter who you are, you just get in the heat of the moment. You know, the title could be won or lost in a matter of a couple of shots."

It was Sampras who made the crucial shots, who got the crucial breaks in the fifth game of both the third and fourth sets, and who ran the table at the end, unloading one last blinder of a serve that Rafter floated long.

"That's one hell of a serve; awesome; can't read it, can't pick it," Rafter said. "He does have a complete game, but having an awesome serve like that just takes a lot of pressure off each game."

Sampras saved the biggest surprise for last. Rarely does he ever play in front of his parents, Georgia and Sam, who he said "get very nervous," and are "very shy people." But for this special Wimbledon, he convinced them to fly in from the United States, then got them seats up in the rafters, away from the cameras.

"They've always been very supportive, very loving," Sampras said. "They weren't the typical parents where they're with me every week. I'm my own man. They always give me my independence. I obviously thank them for giving me the chance to play this game, to be able to play here and break this record. They supported me throughout all the highs and lows. They've seen me at my best and worst."

They didn't see him at his best here. But maybe they saw him at his most glorious, hindered by tendinitis in his left foot and shin, ditching practice for treatment, struggling and surviving in a tournament he could just as easily have lost as won.

But in moments of stress, he found his game, delivering his big serves and winning big points.

"It really is amazing how this tournament just panned out for me," he said. "I didn't really feel like I was going to win here. You know, I really felt I was struggling, didn't really know how it was all going to turn out."

That's Wimbledon's magic and mystique. There's timeless charm, wondrous theatrics and weather, lots of weather.

Every year, someone wonders aloud why a dome isn't erected over Centre Court. Rafter, after losing a great match, gave a great answer.

"I've got no idea, mate," he said. "Listen, this is Wimbledon. I'm just happy to be out there. Whether it rains or shines or whatever it does here in England, it's just good to be out there."

It rained. It stopped. It got dark. Sampras won.

And after the victory ceremony, rain drops came down again.

Isn't it grand?

Pete Sampras passed Roy Emerson to become the all-time men's leader in Grand Slam singles titles (the Australian and French opens, Wimbledon and U.S. Open):

.................A............F............W ..........U...........Tot.

Sampras ........2........... - .......... 7 .......... 4 .......... 13

Emerson ....... 6 .......... 2 .......... 2 .......... 2 .......... 12

B. Borg ....... - .......... 6 .......... 5 .......... - ......... 11

R. Laver ....... 3 .......... 2 .......... 4 .......... 2 ......... 11

B. Tilden ....... - ...........- .......... 3 .......... 7 ......... 10

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