- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England Pete Sampras is now officially the sultan of the Slam.

Eclipsing two Australians in one afternoon, the 28-year-old American left Pat Rafter in the dusk yesterday at the All England Club, claiming his record-tying seventh Wimbledon singles title and record 13th major men's singles crown to nudge past Aussie legend Roy Emerson.

"It means so much to me," said Sampras of setting the Slam standard after blasting his way past Rafter in four sets 6-7 (10), 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-2. "It really is amazing how this tournament just panned out for me. I didn't really feel like I was going to win here… . I'm sure as the months and years go by, I'll look back at these two weeks as the most difficult and the most satisfying [of my career.]"

The 28-year-old Sampras struggled with tendinitis in his left shin throughout the fortnight. And yesterday, he faced the added pressures of the historical landmark at stake, repeated rain delays and Rafter's relentless serve-and-volley attack. So when Rafter's final failed service return looped harmlessly wide, after nearly three hours of tennis and an equal measure of nerve-wracking suspensions, Sampras broke down. He screamed once in triumph, pumping both fists before bending over with his head in his hands and tears in his eyes.

"At the end it was a great moment," said Sampras of the surreal scene in the gloaming (8:57 p.m.) at Centre Court. "It was an amazing setting because it was getting dark, and the [camera's] flashes [were going off]. The roar of the crowd was a moment I'll never forget."

After shaking hands with Rafter at the net, Sampras then scanned the stands for his parents, Sam and Georgia, who flew in from Los Angeles Saturday night to attend their first Wimbledon. Once he found them, waving in the rafters, he followed the Saturday lead of women's singles champion Venus Williams, climbing into the seats to exchange victory hugs.

"I wanted them to be a part of it, win or lose today," said Sampras, whose parents get so nervous watching him and are so superstitious they had been to only one of his 14 Grand Slam finals (his loss at the 1992 U.S. Open). "They've always kept their distance. As a junior when I was a kid, they were involved. But once I turned pro and started traveling with different coaches, I was on my own. They supported, did what parents do. They just love you. They always say the right things. They've just never wanted to get in my way when I'm competing… . It took me awhile to find them, but once I did it was a great moment."

One of a few great moments on a dreary day defined by rather dull tennis. The tenor of the final changed inexorably in the second-set tiebreaker. Trailing Rafter by a set after two crucial double-faults in the first-set breaker, Sampras found himself down four points to one as Rafter prepared to serve his two points. Few exchanges had been won against serve, and Sampras felt history slipping from his grasp.

But the 27-year-old Aussie made the first glaring error of the match with a two-set edge just three points away, flubbing an open-court backhand volley into the net to start a disastrous five-point slide.

"That's what happens when you get tight," said Rafter, who double-faulted on his next serve and then missed an easy opportunity for a forehand pass. "After I missed that, I knew I was [finished]. I just thought, 'Oh God, this is really going downhill.' I was really finding it hard to deal with the nerves."

Sampras surged back to win the breaker 7-5 over the two-time U.S. Open champion (1997 and 1998), and suddenly he seemed back in charge of the match.

"That changed the whole course of the match," Sampras said. "I went from feeling like I was going to lose the match to feeling like I was going to win within two minutes."

With Rafter psychologically shattered, the rest of the match was a virtual smashathon for the game's top server, as Sampras stacked up 27 aces to run his staggering record of held service games at Wimbledon to 87. Through two sets, Rafter had effectively mixed flat wide serves to the Sampras forehand with high kick serves to the Sampras' backhand. But after a slew of missed break opportunities, Sampras finally found his return game in the third, breaking Rafter at 2-2 courtesy of a double-fault and then breaking him twice more in the fourth as darkness closed on the competition.

"It was the same for both of us," said Rafter graciously when asked if the dim conditions doomed his chances in the final set. "I wasn't really getting his serve back anyway. I didn't really care if it was midnight really… . Mentally, I sort of had done my bolt."

As has so often been the case during his career, Sampras simply had more mental grit than his competition. His victory cements his place as the greatest grass-courter in history, as he won his seventh Wimbledon title in eight years a span in which he has compiled a stunning 53-1 record at the turf temple of tennis. Only William Renshaw, who won seven Wimbledon singles titles between 1881 and 1889, has a comparable record. And Renshaw won five of his titles playing only one match, an edge once given to the defending champion.

And though Sampras may still add to his collection of major championships, one can already make a case that he deserves to be dubbed the greatest male player in history. Even without a French Open title on his resume, Sampras has set a Grand Slam standard that would seem almost impossible to equal.

"Time will tell if it will be broken," said Sampras, his 13th Slam success just settling in. "I think in the modern game, it could be difficult. It's a lot of commitment, a lot of good playing at big times… . It's possible. I mean, the next person [to challenge it] might be eight years old hitting at a park right now somewhere around the world. You never know.

"It's time to just kind of sit back and really soak this up, enjoy it, and not really worry about what's next. I just want to reflect on these last two weeks."

The tennis world could be reflecting on them for decades.

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