NEW YORK -- Pete Sampras was up a set and a break, but down a point, 0-15, in the third set of his U.S. Open match with Patrick Rafter last evening when he made a big lunge for a backhand volley.
Sampras reached the volley and won the game. He even won the set. But in a classic example of losing the war, he pulled his left quadriceps muscle and lost his chance at tying Australian Roy Emerson's record of 12 major championships.
"You know, it shocked me a little bit," Sampras said after losing the semifinal to Rafter, the defending Open champion, 6-7 (8-10), 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3. "And then I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to continue to play. The adrenalin was really the only thing that was keeping me going. It was just bad luck, you know. It was just bad luck."
With the win, Rafter earned the right to face Australian countryman Mark Philippoussis, a 6-1, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 winner over No. 10 Carlos Moya, at 4 p.m. today to decide the title.
It will be the first all-Australian final here since Ken Rosewall defeated Tony Roche in a four-set match in 1970.
And it is somewhat ironic that at a time when Sampras was attempting to tie Emerson's record, it was an Australian -- and an injury -- that kept him from doing so, and two Australians who will contend for the title.
"It's just a hard-luck story for Pete," said Rafter. "If Pete was fit there, it may have been a different story. Listen, I feel happy that I've won. But obviously, there's something taken away a little bit from his injury.
"It was a very genuine injury. but I'm very happy to take a win against Pete whenever I can get it."
It is not the first time Sampras has suffered a mishap at the Open. In fact, it seems that every two years something dramatic happens to Sampras here. He was terribly dehydrated in losing in the 1992 semifinals, and suffered cramps in a fourth-round loss in 1994.
In 1996, he pulled out of his match against Alex Corretja in a fifth-set tie-breaker. He was so ill he was throwing up on court.
And now, this.
When the injury occurred, Sampras finished the game, and then called ATP trainer Doug Spreen. The two of them went to the locker room to treat the injury, "because we obviously couldn't do it on court, given its location," said Spreen, who said the trouble spot was high on Sampras' left leg, near his hip.
Spreen massaged the leg with some heat cream, wrapped it, gave Sampras "a little Aleve" and put him through some stretching exercises. He then sent him back on court in time to grab a second break from Rafter and capture the third set, 6-2.
"Once I got back out there and played a couple points, the adrenalin really helped," he said. "Once I saw I could move around a little bit, I felt I was going to continue to play. I knew I wasn't going to quit."
His plan was to hold his serve and hope to find a way to break Rafter. Only Rafter didn't give him a chance. The Aussie came up with the breaks in the first game of both of the fourth and fifth sets, and fed Sampras a steady diet of high-kick serves that had him swinging long from the shoulders.
Afterward, Sampras said he was disappointed and unhappy about being hurt, but otherwise he seemed in good humor. At least he was until someone asked: "Are there times like this when No. 12 and 13 look even further away than ever?"
At that point, Sampras showed his rare temper: "That's a ridiculous question," he said and promptly left the room.
Until Sampras' injury, the Arthur Ashe Stadium court was rocking. Through the first two sets and deep into the third, every point seemed to generate its own energy. And even as Sampras fought to say in the match, the crowd was supporting him.
"Come on, Peeeete, Peeeete, Peeeete!" the fans chanted. But Rafter had other ideas, and when it was over, the crowd knew it was going to be looking at a different kind of final.
No. 3 Rafter will try to defend his Grand Slam title, while the unseeded Philippoussis, experiencing his first final, just as Rafter did here last year, will be trying for his first major win.
"I feel like if I serve the way I am, volleying the way I am, I feel like
it's going to be tough to beat me," said Philippoussis.
Rafter didn't disagree.
"He's not the same player he was when I beat him earlier this summer," Rafter said.
lTC "He's shown us that he can play some great tennis. I think we're going to go out there and get excited. It's the U.S. Open finals, mate."
Who: Mark Philippoussis vs. Patrick Rafter
When: 4 p.m. today
Where: National Tennis Center, Arthur Ashe Stadium, New York
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Seeds: Philippoussis unseeded, Rafter 3
Ages: Philippoussis 21, Rafter 25
Head-to-head: Rafter leads, 2-0
Fast facts: It's the first all-Australian men's final since 1970, when Ken Rosewall defeated Tony Roche.
Pub Date: 9/13/98