Archive for Thursday, September 6, 2001

Sampras overcomes Agassi

Safin next up for comeback-minded netter

September 6, 2001


— Full house. Marquee matchup. U.S. Open.

And Pete Sampras played like a champ.

Taking another huge step in his remarkable resurgence, Sampras edged longtime rival Andre Agassi 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5) in a quarterfinal thriller Wednesday night.

The match lived up to the sort of hype only New York can generate, with both players at the top of their game for 312 hours. Four sets ended with four tiebreakers. In 48 games, neither player broke serve.

If there were any doubts that Sampras shook his yearlong slump with a victory Monday over Pat Rafter, he erased them with another poised, polished performance. And Agassi was nearly his equal in their 32nd meeting.

"It was a pleasure playing tonight," Sampras said. "The energy was phenomenal."

"Certainly a memory I'll never forget," Agassi said. "Quite a powerful evening in many respects."

In the end Sampras' serve was just too good and his composure too cool. When Agassi hit a forehand into the net on match point, Sampras raised his arms in triumph. The two champions met at the net with smiles, a handshake and warm words to each other.

"Win the thing," Agassi told Sampras.

Sampras entered the Open with the No. 10 seeding, his lowest since winning the first of his record 13 Grand Slam championships in 1990. Now he's two victories from his fifth Open title.

On Saturday, Sampras plays a former Open winner No. 3-seeded Marat Safin for the third round in a row. It's a rematch of last year's final, which Safin won in a rout, accelerating Sampras' slide into the slump from which he has just now emerged.

The women's final four Friday sports a stellar cast. The two best players this year, Jennifer Capriati and defending champion Venus Williams, will meet in one semifinal. The other will pair two former champions, No. 10-seeded Serena Williams and No. 1 Martina Hingis.

Venus Williams, seeded fourth, advanced by winning a sloppy match against No. 5 Kim Clijsters 6-3, 6-1. Capriati, seeded second and bidding for her third Grand Slam title this year, beat No. 8 Amelie Mauresmo 6-3, 6-4.

The men's junior division will stage a prime-time quarterfinal showdown today when 21-year-old Australian Lleyton Hewitt plays New York's newest celebrity, 19-year-old American Andy Roddick. Hewitt advanced Wednesday by beating Tommy Haas 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-2.

But Sampras-Agassi will be tough to top. The match drew a sellout crowd of 23,033 at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The president's box overflowed, and even the skyboxes were full. VIPs included Agassi's shy girlfriend, Steffi Graf, who peered from around the corner of a suite. Even a wave couldn't taint the occasion.

There hadn't been a showdown like it in 32 years. Sampras and Agassi have won a combined 20 major titles, the most collective trophies in any Grand Slam men's match since Roy Emerson and Rod Laver holders of 22 titles played in the 1969 Open quarterfinals.

Sampras ended a three-match losing streak in the rivalry and extended his edge over Agassi to 18-14, including 3-0 at the Open. But the victory didn't come easily.

Both players dominated on their serve. Sampras served 25 aces and erased three break points. Agassi hit 18 aces and erased six break points.

"You've got to do more than hold your serve, I guess, huh?" Agassi said.

During one stretch the two went 22 games without a break point. In one game Sampras double-faulted three times, endured an unlucky bounce on a net cord and still held.

Squandered chances cost Sampras the first set. The No. 2-seeded Agassi fell behind 1-2, 0-40, but Sampras committed errors on the next three points. Those were his only break-point chances until the fourth set.

"It came down to the wire. How much closer can you get?" Agassi said.

"When you lose one that close, it's difficult to appreciate much about it except the standard I forced him to play. And that I feel good about."

Safin advanced earlier by defeating Mariano Zabaleta 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. During a postmatch on-court interview, Safin said he's not good enough to beat Sampras or Agassi.

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