Passion Play

In this tournament, coach Tony DiCicco's charges have had a few scary moments. A swift, willing Nigeria team got up on them 1-0 before the American talent took its toll and won 7-1. And in the first five minutes of the crucial quarterfinal in Washington, defender Brandi Chastain lost her bearings, back-passed the ball wide of U.S. goalie Briana Scurry and scored an opening goal for the German side. Trailing 2-1 in the second half, the Americans had to call up all their skill and courage just to win the game and avert a major catastrophe.

Had Chastain and company blown that one, no one would be talking significant social evolution this week. In fact, nothing short of a second World Cup title is likely to give U.S. women's soccer the big boost it craves. In contrast to America's men's team, an acknowledged also-ran with virtually no shot these days at competing with Brazil or Italy or France, the U.S. women are odds-on to win the Cup. They took home Olympic gold in 1996, and U.S. fans simply don't expect them to get beat by Germany. Or anyone else.

"That game stretched us every possible way," Hamm said. "Physically, technically, tactically and emotionally. The Germans are a very sophisticated, strong team. But we have confidence every time we go out there, because we're a veteran team. Being under pressure inspires us."

But will Hamm and company still inspire the country come September?

We lifelong tennis fans figured that the men's game was, if not dead, at least in need of intensive care--the victim of fast courts, space-age racquets and robotic serve-and-volley play. But Pete Sampras and his old pal Andre Agassi put their heads and their ground strokes together on the Fourth of July to save it, at least for now.

This is not to say that Sunday's all-American final on the lawns of Wimbledon was a classic. Sampras, a cold-eyed ripper who finally showed some emotion this time around, blew Agassi off center court in straight sets. But Andre's Lazarus act continues. Two years ago, he had fallen from his high perch (too many nights at the theater, perhaps?) and was ranked 141st in the world. This season he rose from nothingness to win the French Open and complete a rare "career Grand Slam," reach the final at Wimbledon and now say he is eagerly awaiting a big-time rematch with Pete--perhaps at the U.S. Open in late August.

Sampras's win gave him his twelfth Grand Slam title, tying the great Roy Emerson's record, and there is no reason he can't win three or four more Wimbledons before he's through. The grass perfectly suits his big serve, withering ground strokes and sharp volleys.

This renewal of the Sampras-Agassi rivalry, which was the talk of the tour in 1995 and the occasion of silence until last week, is great for the game. So were the tricks Mother Nature played in London. Rain postponed dozens of matches, but for nearly a month before the tournament, the fickle English weather remained warm and sunny, hardening the Wimbledon grass courts. This resulted in higher-bouncing balls, longer rallies and more intricate tactics--just the stuff tennis fans relish in the scintillating women's game and find sorely lacking when the high-powered men take the court.

If the lords of Wimbledon know what they're doing, they'll bake the sheer slickness out of the playing surface next year, too--even if it means crawling over every square inch with hair dryers.

Meanwhile, against all odds, the Sampras-Agassi battle is alive and well. No less than Ali-Frazier, Williams-DiMaggio or Russell-Chamberlain, it's a beautiful thing to behold.

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