New York Pete Sampras spoke of being humbled. Marat Safin spoke of the impossible.
Both were talking about last year's U.S. Open championship, when Safin did what few players have done in Sampras' career: He simply overpowered him. Stroke by stroke, serve by serve, Safin crumbled Sampras, sending him off in straight sets before hoisting the winner's trophy.
"I have to forget it," Safin said after advancing to set up a rematch in one of today's U.S. Open men's semifinals. "Last year doesn't exist. I played too good and I cannot play this game ever again."
For Sampras, the match is a chance to extend what already has been a phenomenal week. Monday night he faced two-time U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter in the fourth round and out-served and out-volleyed one of the best in tennis. Wednesday night was a quarterfinal against his all-time rival, second seed and 1999 U.S. Open champion Andre Agassi. Their battle ended after three hours and 32 minutes when Sampras won, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-5).
"I've gotten through a pretty tough draw," Sampras said. "To play Pat and Andre back-to-back, this is about as tough as it's going to get. But I'm not content by any means. I feel like I've got a couple good matches left in me."
That's bad news for Safin, and possibly worse news for the winner of today's other semifinal between fourth seed Lleyton Hewitt and seventh seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
Sampras seems primed to overturn a title drought that has dragged on since he won a record 13th Grand Slam championship last summer at Wimbledon. He has gone 71 service games without being broken.
"How do you count him out, really?" Agassi said. "A couple of breaks here and there and he'll be at his best for both matches. If that's the case, you have to give him as much chance as anybody else in the draw. The guy still has a huge serve and he still knows when to put pressure on you."
Sampras and Safin have met five times during their careers, with Safin holding a 3-2 series edge. Like Sampras, Safin is searching for his first title of the season. Like Sampras, he, too, has used this tournament as a warm-up exercise, gradually sharpening his strokes.
"He's a great player, possesses a big game," Sampras said. "He's the defending champion, so I'm sure he'll feel a little more pressure this year. I was pretty humbled out there the last time I played him."