Sampras stirs up crowd with win

4-time Open champ beats Rafter to reach quarterfinal vs. Agassi

U.s. Open

September 04, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Sixth seed Patrick Rafter was down two sets and things were looking bleak against No. 10 Pete Sampras, when a fan bellowed from the packed stands around Arthur Ashe Stadium.

"Do you want to go home?" he asked.

Rafter stopped his service preparation, looked in the direction of the voice and nodded clearly, "Yes."

And it was a true answer, because Rafter has made it clear all year that at the end of this season he plans to take a leave of absence from professional tennis. But he didn't really want to leave just then.

He had some dignity to save and, perhaps, a match. But unknown to the two-time U.S. Open champ, another voice in the crowd had the upper hand in perspective. He screamed, "Come on, Pistol Pete!"

And Sampras came on for a 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-4 victory.

Sampras, 30, who has not been a pistol anywhere but Wimbledon since winning the 1996 Open, played like that old - well, younger - Sampras and thrilled more than 25,000 who had wedged themselves into the area for the fourth-round showdown.

In the 10th game of the fourth set, dreading the idea of what seemed would be another inevitable tie-breaker, Sampras took advantage of Rafter's two missed volleys and a double fault to reach 15-40 and, on his second match point, rushed toward the net to put away an overhead.

Pistol Pete and the crowd erupted in emotion as the ball slammed off the hard surface for victory and advanced him to a quarterfinal showdown with No. 2 seed Andre Agassi.

Agassi advanced yesterday by sweeping away No. 13 Roger Federer, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.

"I don't hear everything the crowd says," said Sampras, a four-time winner here. "But `Pistol' is definitely a nickname I've heard over the years."

Sampras said this was one of his best matches in 2001 and said he was inspired by a big match in a major event against one of the best players in the world.

"It doesn't get any easier from here," Sampras added. "Another heavyweight I'm against in a couple days. What can you say? [Agassi] is one of the best ever. He, like Pat, brings out the best in me. He's playing great. Seems like we're both peaking at the same time. Hopefully, we can produce some good tennis out there Wednesday night."

All at once, the U.S. Open, which was being criticized last week for its bland matches in the 32-seed field, has heated up.

Late Sunday night, No. 1 seed Gustavo Kuerten and Max Mirnyi combined for 3 1/2 hours of near perfect tennis. In a blood-boiling five-setter that had fans standing and cheering, Kuerten, who had 103 winners and just 13 unforced errors, pulled out the stirring victory, 6-7 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3), 6-2.

And then yesterday, Sampras and Rafter continued the trend - though it took Rafter awhile to find his serve and he never did find his high volley with any sure consistency.

It was 1-1 in the third set, and Rafter had just slammed another of his errant backhand volleys into the net to give Sampras a slight edge at 15-30, when the fan asked his rude question. It was also about that time that Rafter decided to change his tactics.

He has been suffering from a bum shoulder since hurting it two years ago. He pulled out of the Open because of it in 1999 and had surgery, but the pain has never fully gone away.

So yesterday, in the first two sets, he said he was just trying to serve well enough to "hit my marks, hit the corners," as his service speed ranged from a low of 89 mph to a high of 123. But, when the fan yelled, he realized his only chance was to pick it up.

"I can't play match after match serving very hard," Rafter said. "But I made up my mind it was time. I wasn't hitting the corners and I just had to turn around, got to go for it, first and second serves. I've got to be aggressive with it. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, I've lost nothing anyway."

For a while, it looked like it might work. His serve allowed him to get to that third-set tiebreaker and force a fourth set. It also allowed him to think that if he could keep it going, he still had a chance.

But, he couldn't break Sampras, whose serve was definitely on.

"They were just too big and too heavy," Rafter said. "The only chance I had to break was when he was serving against the wind. But he came up with some great second serves and I didn't pass very well.

"But I've always said in Grand Slams, you don't want to play Pete. I knew he was just playing better with each game."

And when it came down to 30-40 in what would be the final game, Sampras was again Pistol Pete.

After showing he still had the legs to track down and return a Rafter cross-court volley, he made his final decision.

"After I hit it, I said, `I'm coming in.' I got the overhead and that was it," he said of the shot that sent him leaping into the air with joy.

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