Tested Sampras has Open door to fashion Grand Slam history At least six women set to challenge No. 1 Hingis

August 30, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Open captured the imagination a year ago. Australian Patrick Rafter revived the exquisite serve-and-volley game while winning the U.S. Open, his first career Grand Slam; and Venus Williams breathed new life into the women's game. As her beaded hair clickity-clacked, she took center stage and became the first unseeded woman in 39 years to reach the Open final, before losing to No. 1 Martina Hingis.

Now the Open is again ready to see history made. But will it?

As the two-week tournament begins tomorrow in New York, No. 1 seed Pete Sampras is just one win shy of Roy Emerson's record 12 Grand Slam victories. But it is Rafter and No. 8 Andre Agassi, not Sampras, who appear to be on top of their games.

And on the women's side, a showdown is looming. No. 1 Martina Hingis is back to defend, but there are at least six other women -- including No. 6 seed Monica Seles and No. 8 Steffi Graf -- with a real chance to dethrone her.

The men

No. 1 Sampras: The four-time Open champion has not had his best year, but he righted himself to win his fifth Wimbledon. And now, fully recovered from surgery to remove a bothersome wart from his foot, he appears ready to be labeled the favorite.

But Sampras has left room for second-guessing. In Cincinnati, he looked good while losing to Rafter, but a week later in New Haven, Conn., he was booed off the court after losing to Leander Paes.

But there is Emerson's record to inspire Sampras, who has spent his entire career eyeing tennis history's top charts. "Winning the Slams," he continually says, "is what it is all about for me."

He opens his campaign against Germany's Marc Goellner and really shouldn't have a worrisome test until the quarterfinals. If the seeds hold, he'd meet Agassi there and Agassi holds a 2-1 edge in their meetings this year.

No. 2 Marcelo Rios: The Chilean has played hide-and-seek with the No. 1 ranking, but Rios showed little heart at Indianapolis two weeks ago. All he had to do to hold the top spot and the top seed for the Open was make it to the semifinals. Instead, he lost an early-round match to Byron Black.

Now, he must face Daniel Vacek in the first round. The same Vacek who beat him, 6-3, 6-2, on a Cincinnati hardcourt earlier this month.

No. 3 Rafter: The defending champion appears to be rounding into shape nicely. He said it took him some time to adjust to all the attention he has received since winning the Open.

"But after Wimbledon, I just suddenly learned how to take the pressure off and relax," he said.

Since then he has won back-to-back tournaments. Part of the turnaround may be attributed to the "Chin Up, Mate" telegram he received from John Newcombe, telling him to simply concentrate on playing his own game.

Rafter does have a tricky opening match, facing Hicham Arazi.

No. 4 Petr Korda: There is absolutely no telling about Korda. He is capable of great deeds. He won the Australian Open this year, despite having made it past the third round just once before.

Last year at the Open, he made it to the quarterfinals by beating Sampras in a superb match. Then, he basically gave Jonas Bjorkman a free pass to the semifinals by hardly trying because, he said, he was bothered by a cold.

Still, Korda remains one of the best shot makers on the tour.

No. 5 Richard Krajicek: The 1996 Wimbledon champ has his work cut out. He continues to overcome knee troubles, and the Open's hardcourts will be no day at the park.

But a year ago, he made the quarterfinals here and he may benefit this time around by being in the lower half of the draw, away from the top three seeds.

The women

No. 1 Hingis: She successfully defended her Australian Open title, but hasn't been in a Grand Slam final since. At 17, Hingis has discovered clothes and men. But this is the Open and she is expected to be focused here.

In fact, she has been working hard this summer, going to the gym in an effort to improve her conditioning. There is little doubt Hingis is considered the one to beat, but she'll have to be on her guard.

No. 2 Lindsay Davenport: A Grand Slam title has continued to elude her, but Davenport has been the best women's player in the world over the past month. She won three straight tournaments and in the process has carved out wins over Hingis, Williams, Seles (twice), Mary Pierce and Graf.

As the Open begins, Davenport appears to have an, if not easy, at least comfortable draw. She had been a Grand Slam semifinalist three straight times before losing in the quarters at Wimbledon.

If she stays hot, this could be her moment to withstand the pressure of a big match and make it to her first Grand Slam final.

No. 3 Jana Novotna: No longer wearing the "choker" tag after finally winning Wimbledon, Novotna still comes into the Open as an underdog. The chip-and-charge style that worked so well for her on the grass won't cut it here. But Novotna is on her game and she's smart. Time will tell if she'll make the key adjustments.

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