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Sampras displays old flair

He beats Martin to claim crown

Old habits die hard for John McEnroe, who complains to the umpire about a call during his consolation win over Jim Courier. (MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF)

It was almost anticlimactic when Pete Sampras and Todd Martin took the court yesterday for the Champions Cup Boston title match at Agganis Arena.

Sampras, playing his first competitive event since retiring after winning the 2002 US Open, had won the weekend's most anticipated event the night before, beating John McEnroe, 6-3, 6-4, before a packed house of spirited fans starved for top-flight tennis from players they recognize. The 14-time major winner was playing so well, his opponents were spending time thinking up jokes to share with the crowd to deflect attention from the pasting Sampras was putting down.

But Sampras put on another show in the finale, abetted by the surprise performance of the scene-stealing Martin. The 35-year-old Sampras survived a second-set revival by the 36-year-old Martin, as well as a triple match point in the tour's 10-point tiebreak, to win, 6-3, 5-7, 11-9 (tiebreaker). The tournament was testament to Sampras's continued mastery of the game despite a five-year break to live a regular life: His serve is stronger, his backhand more biting , and his demeanor more relaxed than when he dominated the professional tour.

"He can beat most of the guys out there now," said McEnroe, after deftly dispatching his host, tour promoter Jim Courier, 6-2, 6-3, in the third-place match. "He's got one of the biggest forehands in the history of the game, he moves great -- it's a harder style to appreciate, plus he's sort of 'out there,' sometimes he looks like he doesn't even know how good he is."

McEnroe, 13 years older than Sampras, couldn't find his touch or strategic mastery to turn back Sampras's sizzling serves, nor the mobility to run down the fierce ground strokes Sampras whipped to the corners.

Martin was having similar trouble in the championship, waving weakly at Sampras's 105-mile-per-hour serves as the first set slipped past. Sampras won the third game of the second set, cracking three aces before Martin could get his racket in the vicinity of the ball. After the third ace, Sampras looked toward the sideline and crooked a baffled smile, almost as if he were the one fielding the impossible serves and didn't know how to handle them.

But Martin was thinking, and he adjusted his game. "In the first set, I served great," said Martin. "I returned OK, considering his [big] serve, and the ball kept flying by me. The only recourse I had was to turn it into a tennis match rather than a skills test, because his skills are better than mine."

Sampras raced through his serve at love to take a 5-4 lead in the second set, and Martin was left walking back and forth along the baseline, shaking his head and muttering. But Martin was thinking hard, and making adjustments. Instead of taking the ball early, as he likes to do, Martin backed up to take Sampras's serve and, "lo and behold," he said, "I got the point started some of the time."

When Sampras couldn't finish off the point abruptly with his serve or return of serve, he was vulnerable. For a while.

"[Martin] picked up his level a lot," said Sampras. "When he was serving at love, that puts that much more pressure on me. You try to get control of the point."

Martin, also a big server, held serve, and then broke Sampras for a 6-5 lead, as Sampras hit a series of shots that hit just outside the line or just under the tape on the net.

"It was good to see Pete allow himself to get a little nervous at the end of the match like that," said Martin, who had Sampras scrambling in the tiebreaker. Martin took a 5-2 lead and when Sampras caught up at 6-6 with an ace, he immediately gave it back with a double fault. A service winner and a backhand cross-court gave Martin three match points, but Sampras fought them off. He got one back with a backhand volley, then just started hitting the ball harder and harder, his strokes ticking the lines before Martin could get in position to return.

Sampras closed out his first Champions Cup title with a fiery serve, which Martin stretched to get his racket on, but tipped the return wide.

"Pete's bringing the bar up," said Courier, caretaker of the Champions series. "When you bring in 14 major titles in one body, it's going to get tougher."

Barbara Matson can be reached at