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Tennis: Pete switches the lights out on electric Volt.

VLADIMIR Voltchkov's Wimbledon Odyssey stretched the imagination long before he encountered Pete Sampras. To fall at his feet was hardly a surprise and no demise in the eyes of Centre Court.

The most ruthless finisher Wimbledon has known has never indulged the romantic tendency and when the chance came Sampras ran through the intruder without a backward glance.

But it did not matter. This fairy story had no need of a happy ending to make it complete.

Sampras was cast as the baddie before a ball was struck. His 7-6 6-2 6-4 victory did nothing to endear him to the crowd, no matter how close it brought him to his unique place in history. The heart responds to higher things.

Borrowed pants, washed of course, basin haircut and silly smile combined with an impoverished upbringing made the minnow from Minsk underdog material of the highest order.

Throw in an unlikely eight-match winning sequence taking him through qualifying to the brink of the most prestigious final in tennis and you have a plot Walt Disney would struggle to conjure.

While the match remained a contest in the opening set, the crowd even dared to dream. Voltchkov technically led after Sampras lost the opening point on serve.

He would do so in similar circumstances three times in the set. He never broke, of course, but neither did he lose nerve or serve. Even in the tie-break he held his own until a missed backhand let in Sampras.

As you might expect, the greatest grass-court player in history applied the sledge hammer to ram home the advantage. Thereafter the contest ended, but not the drama.

As if revelling in his role, Voltchkov assumed the mantle of Boris Becker, flinging himself across the turf in a manner that did justice to the memory of the flame-haired one.

Should Voltchkov find the air too thin after his brief exposure to the tennis high ground, he might consider a place at sea, in the Crimson Pirate, perhaps.

He was halfway there in his red, Mirror-embossed shirt. And how he did justice to the proud tradition of fighting for the little man. "I had a good run and enjoyed myself immensely today," he said.

"I tried to fight but Pete was just too good. It was a great experience for me. I tried my best and concentrated on my own performance. I'm happy with the way I played."

He was not the only one. Endorsement offers rolled in as his displays captured the attention of all at a tournament not short of incident. Typically he chose not to commit himself to any out of superstition.

"One company approached me. They asked if I'm interested in wearing their clothes for this match with some bonus for it. The question was if they were interested in a long-term deal.

"They said they would have to think. I thought this is not good for me, so I just stuck to the clothes I had before. I washed them of course."

With Voltchkov gone, it's down to business with Sampras looking ever more entrenched on his favourite turf.

He has lost only once in seven years at Wimbledon and the bloke who beat him, Richard Krajicek, went on to win. His opponent in tomorrow's final, Pat Rafter, is a double US Open champion but will have to surpass that to eclipse Sampras here.

The defending champion required the attention of the trainer twice as his injured ankle flared up. At times during the second set he moved with a pronounced limp.

It is not unkind to suggest that one leg was superfluous anyway yesterday so dominant was he after clinching the first set tie-break. Nevertheless, any lack of mobility against Rafter will receive different treatment altogether.

"It wasn't an easy match playing Vladimir. I was the heavy favourite and not having seen him play made it tough," said Sampras. "Obviously the first set was the big test. I was happy to come through it."

On his chances against Rafter and of assuming his place at top table in the tennis pantheon with a 13th Grand Slam victory, Sampras said: "I'm not looking at Sunday as pressure. I'm looking at it as an opportunity.

"I'd love to break it here. If not, I have nothing to be ashamed of for what I've done this past couple of weeks. If it doesn't happen here, maybe in New York, or maybe next year. I'll be ready."

Sampras has beaten the pain barrier throughout the Wimbledon rounds and has even used acupuncture to get him through.

He added: "Just to get to the final has been one of my best efforts. But as long as I have my right arm, on grass I'm still a threat.

"Knowing that Sunday will be my last match feels good mentally. I don't have to come back and play again.

"The adrenaline, the occasion can really get you through a lot of tough situations on the court. I'm sure that will be the case in this final."
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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:Garside, Kevin
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 8, 2000
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