Originally created 07/06/97

Game, set, mismatch at Wimbledon



WIMBLEDON, England -- Pete Sampras, perhaps the greatest player in the history of tennis, faces unseeded underdog Cedric Pioline in the men's final today at Wimbledon.

Game, set, mismatch.

When John McEnroe and others said tennis needs to liven things up, this is not what they had in mind.

Actually, to call the final a mismatch is unfair to mismatches. For Sampras, it's the equivalent of an overhead slam.

On the other hand, the sun came out Saturday at Wimbledon, so anything's possible.

To pull off the greatest upset since the rain stopped, Pioline must win three sets from Sampras (9 a.m., NBC). The Frenchman has won a total of three sets in their seven previous matches, all victories for Pistol Pete.

At the 1993 U.S. Open, they played one of the most lopsided finals in recent Grand Slam history: 6-4, 6-4, 6-3. They last met in the round of 16 at Wimbledon a year ago: 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

Notice a pattern?

In English, Pioline even finishes second to Sampras in personality - a remarkable achievement.

"He beat me, I don't know, a few times," Pioline said. "I never beat him. It's going to be a big match."

It could be a short match.

Sampras, ranked No. 1, has 47 tournament titles, including nine Grand Slams and three Wimbledon championships. He draws comparisons to Roy Emerson of Australia and Bill Tilden.

Pioline, ranked No. 44, has two tournament titles and no Grand Slams. He draws comparisons to Yvon Petra.

Petra was the last Frenchman to reach a Wimbledon final, winning the title in 1946. He never beat Sampras either.

Pioline claimed the biggest victory of his career in the semifinals Friday, taking a dramatic five-set match against Michael Stich.

"If Cedric keeps up that level of play, he has a good shot," Stich said. "But I doubt that he is able to keep that up."

While Pioline never has won a grass-court title, Wimbledon brings out the best in Sampras' serve-and-volley game. He's 31-1 at the All England Club since 1993.

"I've grown to love the grass," he said. "It's very simple out there. You've just got to hold serve, and hopefully you have a couple of chances to break. You can't play any careless tennis, and really, that's it."

Sampras won 97 consecutive service games en route to the final. That's one reason he's a 1-6 favorite with London bookmakers Ladbroke's, and 5-6 to win in straight sets.

Ladbroke's declined to quote odds on Pioline's chances if Sampras plays left-handed.

With a victory, Sampras would match Tilden's American record of 10 Grand Slams and move closer to Emerson, the men's leader with 12. Those totals mean everything to the 25-year-old Sampras.

"He only thinks about tennis and nothing else," Stich said. "That's the person he is, and that's great for him. I could have never done it. I cared about a lot of other things in life. He is a person who just focuses on tennis, day and night, and I think that's part of his success."

Wimbledon is Sampras' grandest stage. Bjorn Borg won the tournament five times, and Sampras' chances of matching that total in 1998 improve every day.

His most formidable rival, 29-year-old Boris Becker, announced plans to retire after Sampras beat him in the quarterfinals.

Stich, the 1991 Wimbledon champion, retired at age 28 after losing in the semifinals.

There's no word on when Pioline, 28, plans to quit. This morning might be a good time.