Sampras smashes Spanish pretender

 

IT WAS perhaps inevitable, once Pete Sampras had won his second Australian Open with consummate ease against a disappointingly ineffectual Carlos Moya here yesterday, that thoughts should turn to the next Grand Slam at Roland Garros in Paris.

During the presentation ceremony, Sampras was referred to as the greatest champion of the modern era. It was a brave statement to make in this the land of Rod Laver, but perhaps the Rocket was excluded on the grounds that in his prime he only just squeezed into the open era.

Only six players since 1968, the beginning of open tennis, have reached the singles finals of all four Grand Slam tournaments: Andre Agassi and Jim Courier of the United States; Laver and Ken Rosewall of Australia, Ivan Lendl, formerly of Czechoslovakia, and Sweden's Stefan Edberg. Of these, only Laver actually won the lot.

Sampras's victory against Moya brought his total number of Grand Slam titles to nine, leaving Roy Emerson (12), Laver (11), Bjorn Borg (11) and Bill Tilden (10) ahead of him.

The one title to escape Sampras is the French, although last year he went precious close, losing to the eventual winner, Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov, in the semi-final.

The American refused to be drawn into discussing his aspirations for this year's Roland Garros, but victory here will surely have encouraged him considerably. The slow balls and the intense heat almost simulated clay, something that the red-court king, Thomas Muster, was quick to exploit, reaching the semi-finals before losing to Sampras.

"The balls were as difficult to put away here as at the French," said Sampras. The fact that he did precisely that, even though his forehand and service power were considerably diminished, will make him believe he can win in Paris.

There was brief talk afterwards of the Australian tournament being moved to February or March. "That would suit me fine and give everybody more of a rest," said Sampras, but there is little or no chance of this happening.

Ford, the major sponsors, get a good crack of the television whip at this time of year to move it would diminish the tournament's worldwide impact.

Sampras usually has at least one poor match during any championship, and on this occasion it occurred in the fourth round against Slovakia's 19-year-old Dominik Hrbaty, of whom more is likely to be heard this year.

Otherwise, the world's number one offered further proof that he remains the gauge by which all others must test themselves. Spain's Albert Costa, still his country's best player even though Moya has overtaken him in the rankings, certainly pushed Sampras close in the quarter-finals, when the American played some of his best and most determined tennis.

Yesterday's final was always likely to be one-sided, given that Moya, for all his thrilling tennis against Boris Becker in the first round, and Michael Chang in the semi-final, has no experience whatsoever at this Grand Slam peak.

Sampras simply bossed him, never allowing Moya to hit more than a handful of those sumptuous ground strokes that have so captivated the Australian audiences.

Just once, when they exchanged service breaks at the beginning of the second set, did it appear Moya might break free of the straight jacket Sampras had imposed by his resolute serving and stern returns. The centre-court crowd desperately wanted the 20-year-old Moya to crackle into life, and they cheered like mad when a stinging backhand winner brought him to point of breaking Sampras's serve.

This he managed, but thereafter Moya's hands were metaphorically tied as Sampras, sensing that his opponent was tiring and losing a little heart, played with total authority.

There were a great many of those soft, sad groans which are a feature of tennis crowds the world over when they are watching a favourite player failing to do himself or herself justice.

A couple of poor line calls in the third set added to Moya's woes and by the end, he cut rather a dejected figure, losing his last service game to love to give Sampras the match 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 - the most one-sided final here since Lendl defeated the supremely-gifted Miloslav Mecir in 1989.

Not that Moya need be the least bit downhearted. This, after all, was only his fifth Grand Slam, and he had never previously got past the second round.

He has a good matchplay temperament and is clearly exceptionally gifted, but as Sampras pointed out "he will be a marked man now".

Moya's success this past fortnight has rushed him up the ranking to number nine, a fact that will have been carefully noted by Britain's Tim Henman who a little over two weeks ago beat the Spaniard 6-3, 6-1 in the final of the Sydney international.

Henman seems likely to drop back two or three places when the new rankings are announced today and he will be keen to get back into action in Dubai in two weeks.