Even flat on his back at the baseline, Pete Sampras refused to concede a point, and Todd Woodbridge knew his only hope of winning would be to call doubles partner Mark Woodforde down from the stands.
Sampras will play for his fourth Wimbledon title and 10th Grand Slam championship Sunday precisely because he pursues perfection so doggedly, as he did Friday in a 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3) semifinal victory over Woodbridge.
“Today, I played one of the greatest players, playing great,” Woodbridge said, adding he could have used Woodforde “to help cover some ground because there were winners flying all over the place.”
As Sampras seeks to tie Bill Tilden for the most majors won by an American, and move closer to Roy Emerson’s record 12, he will face France’s Cedric Pioline, a 6-7 (7-2), 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 winner in the dusk over 1991 champion Michael Stich.
A day after fellow German Boris Becker said farewell to Wimbledon, Stich quit the sport completely. Stich embraced Pioline at the net and told him of his decision, as Becker did with Sampras after their match.
“I made up my mind after the match right away that that was going to be my last match,” Stich said, after playing one of the most compelling matches of the tournament.
“I just said, ‘Thanks for making it exciting.’ Obviously I would have loved to win, but he played his part, and he played great. He brought the best out of me, and that’s what I was hoping for this match, to feel that atmosphere.”
Sampras beat Pioline in straight sets at the 1993 U.S. Open final, and has won all seven of their matches, dropping only three sets along the way. Pioline, the first Frenchman to reach the Wimbledon final since Yvon Petra won in 1946, didn’t sound too confident about upsetting Sampras.
“I’m tired of this player,” Pioline said. “But he’s not a machine.”
Woodbridge wasn’t so sure. When someone began a question, saying Sampras is human, Woodbridge said, “Not by much.”
Sampras’ performance gave Pioline little reason to be hopeful.
“I couldn’t play any better,” said Sampras, who had 10 aces and 23 service winners. “I’ve been getting better with each match. I don’t remember a Wimbledon that I’ve served as well as I have this year.”
Unbroken in 97 straight service games from his first set of the tournament until early in the third set against Woodbridge, Sampras served so sublimely that the Australian considered himself lucky to get his racket on returns. And when Woodbridge did return serves, Sampras raced to the net so quickly there was little opportunity for a rally.
“He was coming up with volleys a couple of inches inside the line,” Woodbridge said. “He just wasn’t giving me the chances on any of the second shots to do anything.”
Sampras closed out the first set in 30 minutes, then served a pair of aces and a service winner while taking the first game of the second set before the inevitable rain came in one of the wettest of Wimbledons.
After nearly an hour’s interruption, Sampras broke Woodbridge immediately upon their return and closed out the second set in only 24 minutes. Though Woodbridge was getting beaten badly, he found himself perversely enjoying the experience.
“It was a pleasure to be out there playing against him today,” Woodbridge said. “Not many people get to appreciate how good a player he is because they’re not on the court with him. I, at least, got to see that side of it.”
Woodbridge has made his mark in tennis as half of the “Woodies,” one of the greatest doubles teams in history. They’re into the semis in pursuit of their fifth straight Wimbledon title, and have won the doubles twice at the Australian Open and twice at the U.S. Open.
As a singles player, the 37th-ranked Woodbridge never had reached the semifinals in a major before this tournament. His goal for the year is to crack the top 20, a modest aspiration compared to Sampras’ desire to retain the No. 1 spot for the fifth straight year.
Though Sampras certainly has more power and greater skills, it was the relentless manner in which he competed for virtually every point that so impressed Woodbridge.
Nothing illustrated that more than the way Sampras scrambled to his feet from the slippery, threadbare turf after falling during a rally at 30-love with Woodbridge serving in the first game of the third set.
Sampras rolled over, got up and kept the rally going with four more shots, finally stabbing a winning volley.
“He was up and running and on to one of those famous running forehands straightaway,” Woodbridge said. “That was the type of thing that I was up against today.”
So intense was Sampras that he scolded himself for the mildest of lapses, such as failing to put away an easy volley even while leading 40-love in a game.
Sampras had won 88 straight service games going into this match. He won nine more in a row when he went to serve with a 2-1 lead in the third set. At 30-30, a man in the crowd yelled, “C’mon, Pete, before we get rained on.” Maybe that spooked Sampras, because he lost the next two points, ending one of the best serving runs of his career.
He didn’t let that lapse faze him long. He held the rest of the way and easily closed out the tiebreaker.
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