NEW YORK -- Asked to distill the essence of the U.S. Open, Pete Sampras, twice an Open champion and gunning to erase the dismal performance that cost him his title defense last year, didn't miss a beat.
He described the last Grand Slam of the year, which gets under way with a resounding bang today when Monica Seles returns to the National Tennis Center, as the looniest Grand Slam of the year. "The place is a madhouse," Sampras said.
So it's obviously the perfect house in which to lock up all 256 of the world's best tennis players for the next two weeks and let them decide, by a grueling seven-round process of elimination, just who really is the No. 1 player of 1995.
"There's no time for excuses, no time to worry about the crowd or the heat," said Sampras, whose memories of "hobbling" through a four-hour, fourth-round loss to Jaime Yzaga before a unreverential crowd last year are less than tantalizing.
"It's the last major of the year, it's big-time tennis," Sampras said.
According to Sampras, when handicapping this Open's potential victors, it's time to round up the usual suspects -- and then some. The emotional terrain at the pinnacle of men's and women's tennis is markedly different from what it was last year.
Sampras was No. 1 last year, but he was fraught with foot problems that kept him on the sidelines all summer and sent him into the U.S. Open "as unprepared as I've ever been."
This year, he's a healthy enough contender, but the ordeal of his coach, Tim Gullikson, who continues to battle brain cancer with debilitating doses of chemotherapy, has had an impact on his mental resilience and is proof that selfishness is not Sampras' strongest suit.
Sampras isn't the only star to lose a valued member of his support staff without warning.
Last year, Steffi Graf was bothered by a bone spur in her lower back that made her trip to the final a painful one.
This year, the infirmity has paled next to the emotional trauma she has experienced after her father, Peter, was arrested and imprisoned in Germany on charges of tax evasion. Bad back and all, Graf was 32-0 before her father's incarceration earlier this month, 0-1 since it.
Unlike Sampras, who pronounced himself ready for the rigors of the Open, a glum Graf failed to come up with any positive predictions regarding her campaign for a fourth singles title here. In her only summer tune-up, she fell to unseeded Amanda Coetzer, who also happens to be her first hurdle at the Open, in Toronto's opening round two weeks ago.
U.S. OPEN FACTS
When: Today through Sept. 10
Where: National Tennis Center, New York
Top seeds: Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf
Defending champions: Agassi, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
TV: USA Network (today, 11 a.m., 7:30 p.m.), CBS (channels 13, 9; tonight, 12:35 a.m.)