History is Pete Sampras’ only competitor.
Four Wimbledons. Ten Grand Slams. Virtually no one in the way of more to come. His rivals these days are all retired - Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson.
Cedric Pioline, chasing aces and groping after groundstrokes, certainly could do nothing Sunday to stop Sampras as he put the finishing touch on a tournament he dominated like no other in his sterling career.
It wasn’t just the score, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, or the time, a mere 94 minutes, or even the ace count, 17, against Pioline that distinguished this Wimbledon from all of Sampras’ other major championships.
It was the way he put together the whole package of his skills - the serve that was broken only twice in 118 games over two weeks, the backhand returns that dispirited Pioline and everyone else, and the speed with which Sampras raced to the net.
“I don’t know what happened with the serves, to tell you the truth,” Sampras said of his amazing consistency from first match to final. “They just clicked for every match I played. It was the shot that won me the tournament.
“In order to win here, you need to return, and that was also a great shot. I was hitting and passing quite well. But this is the best I think I’ve ever served in my career.”
Sampras, getting better with age at 25, is changing one of the basic elements of tennis. He’s so quick to the net with his big strides that he no longer hits approach shots, even when he’s receiving. As he did so many times against Pioline, Sampras crushes returns with his backhand, gets to the net, and waits to slap away volleys - if the ball comes back.
In a final devoid of drama, or even the comic relief of a streaker like last year, Sampras broke Pioline early in each set. After a typically brutal backhand return that flew past Pioline for a break to 2-1, Sampras fairly skipped off court with long, loping strides like a big kid in the playground.
This is where Sampras shows his personality, and if it is muted compared to the likes of Andre Agassi or John McEnroe, he couldn’t care less.
“I know I’m not Dave Letterman when it comes to interviews,” Sampras said. “But the way I am on the court is the way I’ve been my whole life, and it’s the way I’ll continue to be. Very much to myself and a lot like Borg was.
“That’s why when Andre and I were competing, he was the one who had the emotion. And McEnroe was Borg’s rival. That’s what the game needs right now. But I don’t plan on changing for anybody because that’s who I am.”
That’s all he ever needs to be to win at Wimbledon.
He held serve at love three times in the first set, and yielded a total of only four points in his two other service games that set. In the second set, he went one better, dropping just three points on serve.
The only time Sampras found himself even close to trouble was in the third set, when he double-faulted and faced his only break point of the match in the eighth game. He quickly snuffed out that threat with two service winners and a volley that gave him a 5-3 lead.
Pioline staved off defeat for a few moments with the help of his 13th ace. Sampras then put him out of his misery with a service winner on match point that he celebrated by raising his hands and placing his fist on his heart as he faced his new girlfriend, actress Kimberly Williams.
Pioline, the first Frenchman in the Wimbledon final since Yvon Petra won in 1946, played well enough to beat almost anyone, or at least give them a good match. Against Sampras, who has now beaten him in all eight of their meetings, including the 1993 U.S. Open final, Pioline was simply outclassed.
“He’s playing very good, but he’s not God,” said Pioline. True enough, but no mortal could have served better.
Sampras’ 10 major titles tied him with Bill Tilden for the most by an American, and he trails only Borg and Laver (11 each) and Emerson (12).
The one gap in Sampras’ trophy chest is the French Open, and he would dearly love to fill that. But even if some would refuse to call him the best because of his lack of success on clay, he’s building a good case for that claim with all his other triumphs.
“To have won 10 by the age of 25, I never really thought that would happen,” said Sampras, who captured the Australian Open title in January. “This is what’s going to keep me in the game, I hope, for a lot of years - the major tournaments.”
Winning his 10th major boosted Sampras’ hopes of adding No. 11 at the U.S. Open in two months and closing in on the record.
Sampras matched the Wimbledon total of Laver, his childhood hero, and only Borg’s five straight (1976-80) is better in the modern era. The Wimbledon record is seven titles by William Renshaw in the 1880s.
“I don’t like thinking of myself in terms of history,” said Sampras, who won $697,000 to hike his career earnings to $27.q‘1 million. “I feel like I’m still in the middle of my career and it’s not over yet.”
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