WIMBLEDON NO SWEAT FOR SAMPRAS, UNTIL NOW

WIMBLEDON, England — I saw it. I swear. It was gone in an instant, but I saw it. Men’s semifinals, third set, a hotly contested point, and I spotted — are you ready for this? — a bead of sweat on Pete Sampras’ forehead!

Well. I thought I saw it.

Maybe someone’s air conditioner was leaking.

The Iceman Serveth. Everybody duck. The latest racket in the world of racquets is this skinny, dark-haired, unflappable tennis machine that makes the cop who chased Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 2” seem like Fred MacMurray.

Cut his head off, he’ll still return serve. Blow a hole through his midsection, and he’ll beat you with a passing shot. Great? Sampras passed great a mile back on the highway. Not only has he won three of the last four Grand Slam tournaments, but he has blitzed to the finals of this year’s Wimbledon without losing a set until Friday.

(ATTENTION: I am proud to say that the man who won the set from Sampras was none other than Todd Martin, a Lansing kid who gives new meaning to the phrase “Midwestern work ethic.” Martin played six matches here in Strawberry-and-Cream Land, and four of those went the distance, all five sets. This only proves that people from the Great Lakes State always give the customer his money’s worth, and all companies around the world should immediately cancel their contracts and bring them to Michigan, thank you very much.)

Unfortunately, Sampras is not from Michigan. A breakdown showed that while Martin averaged more than four hours a match the last two weeks, Sampras, coming into the semis, had played a total of 8 1/2.

The rest of the time he was organizing his Filofax.

OK, OK, I don’t know that for sure. But Sampras does have that Type A, pencils-sharpened, power-breakfast, low-fat-lunch, early-dinner, PBS, matching-pajamas kind of image. The British press already has dubbed him “Ol’ Pete,” which is not the best nickname when you’re 22.

The most exciting thing we can say about Sampras is that he looks a little like Robby Benson. Not that Benson got anyone excited. He’s no Mr. Excitement

But hang on. I am not giving up on Ol’ Pete. For one thing, he’s American, and ever since the World Cup came across the pond, we are all waving the big flag. Besides, I like Sampras better than I like Jim Courier, who was recently so bored with himself that he read a book during a match. We can only be grateful Jim is not an airline pilot.

But Pete. My friend. While you are an awesome talent, a devoted craftsman, and can crush a serve and poke the ball to places so remote even the net blinks in disbelief — the fact is, on the excitement meter, you rank just below Chemistry Lab.

We are here to help.

Opening lines. The trick in entertaining is to come out strong. Sampras won his semifinal Friday, then began his press conference by talking about an ankle twist. Not good.

Here are a few lines that would get folks a little more excited: 1) “I have O.J.’s knife.” 2) “Have you met my new wife — Lorena Bobbitt?” 3) “Regrets . . . I’ve had a few . . . but then again . . .” 4) “I am seeking political asylum — in Haiti.” 5) “Although I’ve been unfaithful, I am still fit to be king . . .”

Use any of these, Ol’ Pete, and your image problems will be gone in a flash.

You may have a few lawsuits, but that’s another column. Ivanisevic’s serve a blast

Of course, Sampras, even in his current form, is preferable to the man he’ll play in the final, Goran Ivanisevic. For one thing, we can spell
“Sampras.” Besides, you think Pete’s brand of tennis is stultifying? (How’s that for a big word?) Goran Ivanisevic is the tennis equivalent of a nuclear blast. He serves, your house comes down.

“What did he hit, 22 aces?” a stunned Boris Becker asked, after losing Friday in straight sets to Mr. I. “That is too good. There is no tennis played. Only serves.”

Exactly. Someone asked Becker whether he thought the men’s final would be one guy serving 20 aces and the other guy serving 25.

“More,” he sighed.

Uh-oh. This is not a happy prospect for tennis, a sport which, thanks to fallen heroes, pampered stars and questions about its future popularity, has the self-esteem of Richard Lewis.

Maybe it’ll rain.

Of course, the wise man might say that blazing forehands, brilliant serves and powerful volleys should be reason enough to watch tennis. He might say that personality should not dictate interest, that sports is sports, and Pete and Goran are state-of-the-art. This man, no doubt, also would say a football player’s court hearings aren’t worth televising.

But take heart, tennis worriers. Maybe fans are smarter than you think. Besides, if Ol’ Pete and Mr. Howyouspellit concern us, remember that Becker was once considered the big boomer of Wimbledon. And listen to what he said Friday:

“I am not the person I was when I won here the first time.”

So there’s hope.

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