Sampras gets taste of what he serves, but prevails U.S. OPEN

September 05, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Unflappable is usually the best way to describe Pete Sampras at the U.S. Open.

He ignores the noise, the crowds, the complaints.

As seeded players Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic, Andrei Medvedev, Jim Courier, Wayne Ferreira and now Stefan Edberg -- a 6-4, 6-4, 6-0 loser last night to Jonas Bjorkman -- depart Flushing Meadow unfulfilled, Pete Sampras keeps slamming away.

Until yesterday, Sampras, the U.S. Open's defending champion, ignored it all. And then along came this pesky, 30-year-old qualifier from the Bahamas, Roger Smith, who took the first set of their afternoon match and was up a break in the third and suddenly Sampras started to notice.

The wind was bad.

And the playing field wasn't level.

"To tell you the truth, the court isn't really that level," he said. "Quite a number of bad bounces for the biggest tournament in the world -- one of them, anyway. They should have, really have a level court. I just felt, well, maybe it was just me. Maybe my timing was off. I just came out a bit sluggish and got off to a bad start."

Maybe he is simply human.

Sampras eventually won the match in four sets, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3, and the result was never really in doubt.

But for a while, Smith made him look a lot like any other player in the world. When Smith's crosscourt backhand whipped by Sampras' feet, he scratched his head in wonder.

When Smith got off an angled serve that drew Sampras far off the court and then followed it up with a shot down the far-side line, Sampras rolled his eyes to heaven.

And when he had to save two break points to keep from being broken for the second time in the third set, he walked off the court shaking his head.

It was simply a taste of what he dishes out.

And he dishes so often, that he has most of the players bamboozled. And the media, too.

"Pete," a questioner said, "do you think, given the game and how young you are, that your situation could get to where Steffi's is, where you wouldn't be pressed by anyone?"

The question is about dominance.

Graf won the 1988 French Open final, 6-0, 6-0, and has been the uncontested No. 1 player in the world for six of the past eight years.

Currently, there are some blips on her screen -- having lost back-to-back Grand Slam matches at the French Open and then in the first round at Wimbledon.

But here at the Open, despite a suspect back, she is again the favorite to win.

The comparison, if strange at all, is because Sampras already seems to have carved out his own, separate plateau.

As a 19-year-old in 1990, he walked onto Stadium Court and upset Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi to become the youngest-ever men's champion. It was the first step to his stranglehold on the sport.

"Pete really hasn't been tested," said Michael Chang, who plays Agassi today in hopes of getting a step closer to meeting Sampras in the final. "If someone can get Pete in a tense situation out there, in a tiebreaker, then we'll kind of see where Pete is."

Of course, the world saw Sampras in two tiebreakers at Wimbledon, where he won the first two sets of the final against Ivanisevic, 7-6, 7-6, and then went on to demoralize him in the third set, 6-0.

And then there are these figures: His Grand Slam singles record after yesterday is 21-1; he has won 10 straight at the Open; he has won 35 of his last 36 Grand Slam matches.

Only a four-set quarterfinal loss to Courier at the French Open interrupts the flow.

"Right now, I don't fear anyone out there," Sampras said. "I mean, I feel like I can beat the best grass-court players, like Goran. And I can stay back with the Agassis and Couriers. I can serve and volley and I can keep it as simple as possible.

"I just play my tennis."

That wasn't something that No. 5 seed Edberg did last night against Bjorkman on Stadium Court.

"It was like Christmas for him tonight," said Edberg, who twisted his wrist in the first set. "My wrist may have cost me the first set, but it didn't bother me the rest of the way. It just happens like that sometimes."

Edberg double-faulted on the second-set set point and then lost 15 more straight points in the third set before finally getting on the board at 40-15 in the fourth game.

"I did what I could tonight, but he was playing his best," Edberg TC said.

With Sampras, though, he is already so dominant that when most other players state their ability to beat Top 10 players, they exempt Sampras from the discussion.

"Pete is probably playing close to as high toward his potential as he ever has," said No. 9 Todd Martin.

Coming into this Open, Sampras, 23, was supposed to be suspect because of a left ankle injury that had forced him into inactivity for the past six weeks.

Any idea of that vulnerability evaporated as he has taken care of business as usual.

"It's like riding a bike," he said. "You always remember how to play. You can't go out there with a negative attitude that you haven't played a match. It's an excuse. You have to make the best of it."

And so do his opponents.

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Singles, third round

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