WIMBLEDON, England (AP) - Pete Sampras outplayed Todd Woodbridge in straight sets in the semifinals today to close in on his fourth Wimbledon title in five years.
One day after ousting fellow three-time champion Boris Becker in a match that had the atmosphere of a final, Sampras coasted to a 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3) victory over the unseeded Australian in what could have been a routine first-rounder.
Sampras' opponent in Sunday's final will be unseeded Cedric Pioline, who beat 1991 champion Michael Stich in five sets to become the first French finalist at Wimbledon in 51 years.
Pioline won 6-7 (7-2), 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 in a match that ended after nearly three hours in fading light.
After Pioline rifled a service winner on match point, the two embraced at the net. Stich, in his last appearance at Wimbledon before retirement, wiped away tears as he waved goodbye to the Centre Court crowd.
The last Frenchman to reach the final was Yvon Petra, who won the title in 1946. He was the last champion to wear long pants.
It will be the second Grand Slam final between Sampras and Pioline. In 1993, Sampras beat Pioline 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 in the U.S. Open final. Pioline has never beaten Sampras, winning only one set in seven matches.
Only the rain stopped Sampras from wrapping up his match quicker. The start of the match was delayed 1 hour, 40 minutes, by a downpour, and play was suspended by rain for another hour with Sampras up 1-0 in the second set. The total playing time was 1:44.
Sampras simply played on a different level than Woodbridge, a doubles star who was playing in his first Grand Slam singles semifinal.
"I couldn't play any better," Sampras said. "The first two sets I was on a great roll. I've been getting better every match."
Sampras is the odds-on favorite to win the title he won three straight years from 1993-95. It would be his 10th Grand Slam title and put him only two behind Roy Emerson's all-time record of 12.
"This is what it's all about for me, to win the major tournaments," Sampras said. "I have a chance on Sunday to win another one. I'm very motivated."
Woodbridge has won eight Grand Slam doubles titles, including four straight at Wimbledon with Mark Woodforde. But chances are the two "Woodies" wouldn't have been able to beat Sampras on this day.
"Today I played one of the greatest players playing great," Woodbridge said. "It was a pleasure to be out there playing against him today. Not many people appreciate how good a player he is because they don't get on court with him. At least I got to see that side of it.
"He's got a good chance to win the title. It's difficult to rank past players with current players, but (Sampras) is one of the all-time greatest players for sure."
The only consolation for Woodbridge was that he became the first player to break Sampras' serve since Mikael Tillstrom did it in the fourth game of their first-round match. But he broke only once and failed on five other break chances.
Sampras had won 97 conseutive service games until Woodbridge broke him in the fourth game of the third set. The Australian raised his game after that, finding his timing on Sampras' shots and forcing a tiebreaker.
From 4-3 in the tiebreaker, Sampras won three straight points to close out the match, finishing with a service winner down the middle which Woodbridge just barely got his racket on. He had 10 aces for the match.
While returning Sampras' first serve is hard enough, Woodbridge said his second serve is just as tough to get back.
"The way he serves, the second ball is what sets him apart from the other players," he said. "It's put on a dime, wherever he wants it, very heavy and very hard."
Sampras said he was feeling fatigued after playing five straight days as the water-logged tournament struggles to finish on time.
"I have a day off tomorrow and I need that," he said.
The women's final is set for Saturday, with 16-year-old Martina Hingis bidding to become the youngest Wimbledon champion since Charlotte "Lottie" Dodd won in 1887 at 15.
Her opponent will be 28-year-old Jana Novotna, who posted a 6-4, 6-2 victory in a grudge match against former doubles partner Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the semifinals.
Novotna has been burdened with a "choker" label since blowing a 4-1 lead in the final set against Steffi Graf in the 1993 final.
"I'm a different person from 1993 and I will play much calmer," Novotna said.
With men's tennis already suffering a shortage of stars, Boris Becker's farewell to Wimbledon is the last thing the game needs.
"I feel like I've been punched in the stomach," said former three-time champion John McEnroe, now working as an NBC commentator. "It's a blow to the men's game to lose one of the biggest personalities we have had in 12 years and it just shows how bad the sport of tennis is."
Sampras, the No. 1 player who shuns the role of superstar, also admitted that tennis will be in trouble following Becker's decision to quit Wimbledon and wind down his career.
"It's a huge impact for tennis," Sampras said. "He's brought a lot of money to the game. He's the Michael Jordan of Germany. He's got personality. He's got a presence about him that not a lot of players have. So that's going to be missed.
"He's one of the best players that ever played and the game needs some personality, and it needs a rivalry. We've just got to find something, I guess."
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