Re: Out Of Bounds - Sampras
Like the good old days
IF EVER there were any doubts about Pete Sampras' right to call himself the greatest, he crushed them in emphatic style on Sunday with his epic four-set win over Andre Agassi for a fifth US Open title.
A day earlier, fellow American Serena Williams won a third straight Grand Slam title at the US Open without dropping a set.
Facing his long-time rival, the only man to have challenged his dominance in the 1990s, Sampras somehow summoned a performance which overshadowed all his previous 13 Grand Slam triumphs.
For two-and-a-half sets, a sentimental New York crowd was treated to the kind of breathtaking serve-volleying which had seen Sampras climb to the pinnacle of world tennis in 1993 and stay there for six years.
Sampras' serve, once one of the most feared in tennis, was suddenly impregnable even to one of the game's greatest returners. And once that was firing, the rest of Sampras' game clicked seamlessly back into place.
Such was the devastation wreaked by Sampras that the crowd, desperate for more entertainment, threw their weight behind Agassi. It was just like the good old days when tennis crowds became bored of Sampras' procession of titles and would always support his opponent, more out of sympathy than hope.
Only in the last two years has Sampras found himself back in favour during a barren spell which has seen him slump to a series of new and shocking lows.
The most painful came at Wimbledon this year where in the second round he was beaten by 'lucky loser' George Bastl, a player who can most favourably be described as a journeyman.
A shell-shocked Sampras afterwards spoke of his belief that he was merely short on confidence and that he would be back for another shot at the title he had won a record seven times.
But to the majority of observers, it was the forlorn cry of a proud champion who would not accept the passing of time. Having suffered moral-crushing defeats to 20-year- old opponents, Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt, in the previous two US Open finals, many might have taken the hint that their time was up.
After two run-of- the-mill matches at this year's US Open, he faced an in-form and fired- up Greg Rusedski in the third round. Driven on by a wildly partisan crowd, Sampras scraped a five-set win which gave no indication of the fireworks he was about to produce.
Rusedski afterwards became the first of Sampras' contemporaries to say that he was no longer the player he once was, adding that he was a "a step-and-a- half slower" getting to the net.
But Sampras' performances at Flushing Meadows from the fourth round onwards told a different story.
His confidence flooding back, Sampras returned to the player of old, winning points with a swinging serve and crisp volley and demoralising opponents with his ability to produce an ace at the scent of danger.
Sampras will not be drawn on his future, but after leaving those who pushed for his retirement red-faced with the emphatic nature of his victory, he has ensured that the decision will be left entirely in the hands of the legend himself.
No-one is asking when Serena will retire but whether she can be stopped. Such was her domination over the two weeks that no-one even managed to take her to a tie- break.
In the space of a year there has been a major shift in power at the top of women's tennis. Only 12 months ago it was Venus who cemented her place at the top of the rankings with a comprehensive win over her sister at Flushing Meadows.
It seemed that the elder sibling had asserted her authority over the younger. But this year has seen the Williams' story work out as father Richard had predicted -- with Serena fulfilling her promise in dramatic style.
After the usual slow start to the year at the Australian Open -- the one Grand Slam title to have eluded both sisters so far -- Serena overcame an ankle injury to win in Scottsdale in February.
The floodgates really opened the following month in Miami when she beat Venus for the first time in three years, and only the second time in her career.
Team Williams finally made the breakthrough on clay when Serena won the Italian Open in May, and followed up by beating her sister in the final of the French Open.
It was the same story at Wimbledon, and Saturday's victory took Serena's record for the year to 44 wins and four losses, with five titles to her name in a relatively light schedule.
For all his eccentricities and outspoken comments, Richard Williams has proved to be a master at charting his daughters' careers. Despite the hype surrounding both Venus and Serena from a young age, they have both been brought through slowly, almost held back for their own good.
They now know how to peak at exactly the right time -- in the major championships.
Serena has suffered surprise defeats this year to Justine Henin, Chanda Rubin and Meghann Saughnessy, but all in tour events. When it came to the Grand Slams she was ready. Physically, no other player on the tour can match her -- including Venus -- and that is why she looks set to dominate for years to come.
There are plenty of new young stars on the way up, notably from Russia, but none look to have anything approaching Serena's power. Her huge serve is matched by unrivalled weight of shot off the ground and on return, as she demonstrated in the US Open final.
"I think Serena's level is definitely more up than last year," said Venus. "I think mentally I'm not there as much."
And if Venus feels unable to compete with Serena, it holds out little hope for the rest.
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