Sampras upset by Korda in Open Top seed unraveled in falling behind 0-4 in fifth-set tiebreaker

September 02, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- When another of Pete Sampras' usually brilliant forehands landed squarely in the net to send his match with No. 15 seed Petr Korda into a fifth-set tiebreaker, Sampras looked at his racket as if it had betrayed him.

It was not the first time on this long, rain-interrupted day that Sampras found himself beset with questions, nor would it be the last, as Korda burst to a 4-0 lead in the tiebreaker and went on to upset the world's top player, 6-7 (4-7), 7-5, 7-6 (7-2), 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), yesterday at the U.S. Open.

"I had my chance today," said Sampras, whose facial expression changed with nearly every missed shot. "But I give him credit. He raised his level when he had to. I had to raise mine in the fourth and I did, but I just didn't put the clamps down when I had him down. And he passed about as well as I've ever seen."

The key game came at 3-1 in the fifth set. Sampras thought he had hit a sideline winner, but the chair overruled and awarded Korda the point for an 0-15 start to the game.

"It was a tough overrule," Sampras said glumly. "He got a couple of good passing shots then and that got him back in the match."

That's how Sampras saw it. But at that point, Korda had been hitting so many backhand passing shots for points, it's understandable that Sampras might be seeing them everywhere.

What Korda did was hit one brilliant passing shot in that game, to go up 0-30. Then, during a rally, Sampras inexplicably decided to try a backhand slice on an easy return and plopped it into his side of the net. Moments later, he put another backhand into the net, two of 66 unforced errors.

"I did get a lucky call on Pete's volley for the first point of that game," Korda said. "I think the ball was in. But I got beat with the referee in the first set. I truly believe I broke Pete, which could turn different in the match, completely different way. But I got lucky late and then I just tried to play great tennis.

"When we got to the tiebreaker, it is always kind of roulette."

But Sampras wasn't so sure it was roulette.

"This match kind of reminded me of the [Alex] Corretja match last year," he said, recalling a match he seemed out of but came back to win. "I ended up winning the tournament. Maybe what comes around goes around. But it's tough to swallow."

To Sampras, Grand Slam titles are everything and that accounts for the increased animation Sampras showed on the Arthur Ashe Stadium Court.

It's why, on one rare occasion, he actually made a motion to throw his racket, but restrained himself at the last second; why he got down to eye level with a volley hanging on the net, between going over or falling back. He stared. The ball paused -- and then fell back at his feet; why when he finally hit a stunning backhand to set up break point in the second game of the fifth set that he actually let out a sound effect -- a "Yeah!" -- it had all his pent-up desire and frustration in it.

But despite all that effort, his Grand Slam count remains at 10, one shy of a three-way tie with Bjorn Borg and Rod Lever for second on the all-time list and two short of matching Roy Emerson's record of 12.

Korda has not even one Grand Slam title.

But no one could tell that yesterday by the way he played. As fans screamed, "Pete -- this is your house," to encourage Sampras to forge that 3-0 lead in the fifth set, Korda simply tightened his left-handed grip on his racket and broke back on Sampras' next serve.

When his 114-mph serve on match point careened off the end of Sampras' racket, Korda simply held his own racket on top of his head and treasured the moment.

"I am so happy with the victory," said Korda, almost devoid of emotion after the match. "I'm really proud of myself, because of what I went through the last three, four years. I've been climbing a mountain and I feel, finally, that I am back to playing Top 10 tennis. I am really proud."

This was not so much a match that Sampras lost as one that Korda, a stick-like figure who resembles some exotic shorebird, won. He planted 66 percent of his first serves in the serving island. He hit 15 aces, won points on 78 percent of his first serves, 60 percent on his second and made Sampras' usually brilliant backhand look weak.

On top of it, when Sampras started running around his backhand attempt to hit forehands instead, Korda made him pay with more consistent passing shots.

At 29, Korda is a Grand Slam quarterfinalist for only the third time in his career. His next opponent will be Jonas Bjorkman, who beat Scott Draper yesterday, 6-3, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (8-6).

Once ranked as high as fifth in 1992, Korda slipped to 41 in 1995, after his left groin was injured in 1994. Despite the injury, Korda kept playing, living on anti-inflammatories, "eating them like candies," until his leg went numb while playing here in 1995 against Andre Agassi.

Still, he kept playing on tour, while not being able to practice. Finally, when he could no longer lift his leg, he agreed to surgery.

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