Sampras eases into final, says, 'I'll be the favorite' No. 2 seed to face Pioline for title

September 12, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- When Pete Sampras made it through to the final of the 1990 U.S. Open, he was seeded 12th and relatively unknown. By beating a more highly regarded and higher-ranked Andre Agassi for the championship, the 19-year-old from California became a star.

"My life in tennis really began that day on Stadium Court," Sampras, now 22, said recently.

When Sampras steps inside Louis Armstrong Stadium this afternoonfor the men's final of this year's U.S. Open, he will be looking at his past, trying to prevent Cedric Pioline's tennis life from starting the same way.

Sampras, the No. 2 seed, advanced to his third straight Open final with a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 semifinal victory yesterday over No. 14 seed Alexander Volkov of Russia. Pioline, a 24-year-old Frenchman seeded 15th, made it to his first Grand Slam final with a 6-1, 6-7 (3-7), 7-6 (7-2), 6-1 victory over unseeded Wally Masur of Australia.

"More or less I'm the favorite in every match I play," said Sampras, who again became the No. 1 player in men's tennis by reaching the Open final and displacing Jim Courier. "I was expected to win today, and I'll be the favorite tomorrow. Hopefully, things will work out."

While Sampras may even be considered a prohibitive favorite, stranger things have happened here in the past two weeks. Like Pioline beating top seed Courier in the quarterfinals last week. Sampras, the reigning Wimbledon champion, is not looking past his opponent to the $535,000 first prize.

"He's a very talented player," said Sampras, who has beaten Pioline in their previous two matches, both indoors. "He's going to come out swinging. He's got a really nice backhand. Hopefully, I can put some pressure on him and serve really well."

That's what today's final will come down to: If Pioline has any chance to win the first tournament of his pro career, he will have to get a handle on a serve that has produced 81 aces, including 16 yesterday against Volkov.

"I think the key to the match, if Sampras wins, would be his serve and how Pioline could cope with his serve," Masur said. "I think once Pioline is in the points, he will be fine. But the key will probably be the quality of Sampras' serve."

Another factor will be the way Pioline handles playing in the most important match of his heretofore non-descript career. The lowest-seeded men's Open finalist since No. 16 Miloslav Mecir lost to top seed Ivan Lendl seven years ago and the first Frenchman to play for the title since Henri Cochet lost to Ellsworth Vines in 1932, Pioline doesn't seem to be overwhelmed. Asked whether he was surprised to reach the final at the Open, Pioline said: "Yes and no. I mean today I played very well. I am not surprised because I know, for this tournament, I am in good shape. I beat Courier and after I got a good draw, so I just tried to do it."

After a sloppy quarterfinal victory over No. 8 seed Andrei Medvedev, Pioline returned yesterday to the level on which he played Courier. He ran off the first five games against Masur, stumbled slightly by losing a second-set tiebreaker and then regained his touch in the last two sets.

It left Masur gasping to hold on.

"I must admit that in the fourth set at some point, I was finding him very tough," said Masur, 30, who was playing in his first Open semifinal as well. "I didn't know how to play him. I had nothing left to show him that he hadn't seen. He was very dangerous off both wings. I think when I was down two breaks, I was really looking down the barrel against him because he was growing in confidence."

Does Pioline have any chance against Sampras?

"I like Cedric's game," Masur said. "I like the way he plays tennis. There is no weakness in his game. Which I think in today's tennis is very important."

Volkov had no chance against Sampras. After losing badly to him in last year's Open quarterfinals -- a match Sampras said Volkov went "[6-]4, tank and tank" -- the 26-year-old Russian put up only a little more resistance yesterday. He never had a break point against Sampras and seemed to give up in the third set this time.

"He came out ready to play," Sampras said. "After I won the

second set, I was seeing him lose interest in the way he was carrying himself. I think he knew he was in trouble."

Volkov was even more on the defensive after the match than he was against Sampras. He blamed his defeat as much on not having played on Stadium Court as on the caliber of Sampras' game.

"If you are playing six matches in a row and [this is your] first time on center court, it's difficult," Volkov said. "With everything, see the ball and everything around, so big you know, so many people. I have enough experience to play on courts like this anyway, but I needed time to get used to it."

Asked about the way Sampras is playing, Volkov got more testy.

"If you want to ask questions about Pete, he's going to be here in five minutes, and you can ask him," Volkov said.

"He's No. 1 player. What else you want me to tell you? He serves more aces than anybody else. You want me to tell you again, he serve well? Yes, he serve well."

It is not just the serve that has distanced Sampras from the competition. He is a more complete player than when he won here three years ago and has overpowered just about everybody he has faced in the past two weeks. Now comes Pioline, who defused Courier's power and will try to do the same to Sampras.

And Pioline will try to do something that has so far eluded him in his first four years on tour: win a tournament.

"I didn't make so many finals -- I mean it is my second or third," Pioline said. "But one day you have to start to win, so maybe tomorrow."

MA Maybe not, if Sampras has the final say. And the final serve.

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