Originally created 07/06/99

Drama returns bounce to tennis



WIMBLEDON, England -- Tennis has some zip again.

Wimbledon, like the French Open a month ago, injected new life into the sport when it needed it most.

The All England Club provided the stage for the coronation of a new female champion (Lindsay Davenport), the farewell of an old champ (Steffi Graf) and the emergence of potential future champs (Alexandra Stevenson, Jelena Dokic and Mirjana Lucic).

Wimbledon also confirmed the untouchable grass-court mastery of Pete Sampras, as well as the remarkable renaissance of Andre Agassi, who energizes the men's game like no other player.

"Andre brings out the best in me," Sampras said after blasting Agassi in straight sets Sunday for his sixth Wimbledon crown. "He elevates my game to a level that is phenomenal."

Phenomenal sums up Sampras' 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 victory, a virtuoso display of serving, volleying and shotmaking that was arguably the best performance ever on Centre Court.

Willie Renshaw is the only man with more Wimbledon titles (seven), and that was back in the 1880s. At 27 years old, Sampras looks certain to surpass that record as well as the mark for total Grand Slam championships (12), which he now shares with Roy Emerson.

Asked how many more times Sampras can win Wimbledon, Agassi said, "For the next four years -- as many times as he wants."

Sampras will be chasing the Grand Slam record two months from now at the U.S. Open, a tournament he has won four times.

"I'd love to do it where it all started for me in 1990," he said.

If Sampras is the best player ever to pick up a racket at Wimbledon, there is still debate whether he's the greatest ever, period. Sampras has never won the French Open, or even reached the final of the clay court classic.

By contrast, Sampras' idol, Rod Laver, won the French twice. Bjorn Borg did it six times. And Agassi won the French four weeks ago to become only the fifth man in history to win all four Grand Slam events.

The French Open is the toughest test in tennis, where baseline play and physical stamina are the key ingredients. Neither is Sampras' strong point.

But on the lawns of Wimbledon, where the rallies are few and the serve-and-volley dominates, Sampras is invincible. He's slightly less omnipotent on the hard courts of Flushing Meadow, where the higher bounce gives players like Agassi a chance.

"I want another shot at him and I want another shot at him this summer," Agassi said. "I want another shot at him in the finals of the U.S. Open."

Men's tennis suffered in recent years from a shortage of personalities and a lack of a compelling rivalry. Now, with Agassi back at the top after climbing back from No. 141, he could provide Sampras with the foil he needs.

But can they maintain a long-running rivalry matching Borg vs. McEnroe and McEnroe vs. Connors?

"Maybe it's the start," Sampras said, "but it's difficult to have a consistent rivalry because the game is so strong today. It's really hard to have two or three guys playing each other all year round. The game is not like it was 15 years ago when the top four were so much better than everybody else."

Sampras, who has finished the year at No. 1 for a record six years in a row, fell to No. 2 behind Agassi in the new rankings released Monday. But Sampras has other priorities.

"The game for me right now is to do well at the majors," he said. "Grand Slams are always going to be the reason why I'm going to be playing this game in my early to mid-30s."

Agassi, in what sounds like wishful thinking, thinks Sampras' move from Florida to California may wind up cutting his career short.

"I've got a hunch L.A. will break him down before his body does," Agassi said. "If he starts getting comfortable on the lifestyle and changes his priorities, it's different."

Living in California hasn't hurt Davenport, who punished Graf 6-4, 7-5, in the women's final, adding the Wimbledon title to the U.S. Open championship she won last year.

The match marked the end of seven-time champion Graf's Wimbledon career. But it marked a breakthrough for Davenport, who had always struggled on grass.

"I look at someone like Lindsay as inspirational," McEnroe said. "We had Andre at the French, and he lifted the spirits of the tennis world. But to see somebody like Lindsay, who wasn't known as the best athlete, shows you can do it the old-fashioned way: hard work, dedication, love for your sport."

Davenport was virtually overlooked throughout the tournament as the spotlight fell on younger, more glamorous players such as Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova.

The down-to-earth Davenport has never courted publicity or celebrity.

"I think it's the greatest thing to get attention for winning tournaments, and for being a good person and for being normal," she said.

Plenty of attention was paid to Stevenson, the 18-year-old American who became the first player in Wimbledon history to come out of the qualifying rounds to reach the women's semifinals.

Not only that, the world learned that Stevenson's father is basketball great Julius Erving.

Stevenson wasn't the only new face. Dokic, a 16-year-old qualifier, stunned No. 1 Martina Hingis in the first round before losing to Stevenson in the quarters. And Lucic, the 17-year-old Croat, pushed Graf to three sets in the semis.

After some lean times, tennis should have plenty of storylines to follow in the months and years to come.