Sampras breaks down Agassi

No. 10 seed rallies to Open semis, taking all-tiebreaker match

U. S. Open

September 06, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Bodies vibrated with pent-up electricity around Arthur Ashe Stadium. Celebrities lined up in their version of Murderers' Row beyond the baseline. Players from both the men's and women's tour took the time to show up and watch the match on center stage at the U.S. Open.

No. 2 Andre Agassi vs. No. 10 Pete Sampras.

It was a heavyweight battle of future Hall of Famers, between them 20 Grand Slam titles were on the court.

It would live up to the hype, and more than 23,000 fans looking on cheered equally for both. The two aging stars pounded each other through four heart-stopping sets and four gut-checking tiebreakers until Sampras emerged the quarterfinal winner, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5), after 3 hours, 33 minutes at 12:14 this morning.

"I have a hard time believing I didn't lose my serve, and lost," said Agassi, who looked somewhat bewildered in the post-match interview and spoke in an unusually flat voice. "But I guess you have to do more than that.

"It was a powerful match and I felt I was a breaker away from winning. That's what I tried to concentrate on. If I could have gotten it to a fifth set ... but in a match like this, it boils down to a few shots.

"It's about what you could have done and what you did do. In some respects that will make tonight's loss easier and more difficult. It was disappointing for me, but I was glad to be a part of it."

And when they got to the net for the post-match handshake, that's what they exchanged: their appreciation for being part of the night.

"It was an awesome night," Sampras said. "The appreciation the crowd gave up, on their feet, applauding. When Andre and I are both on our games the way we are now, this is the kind of match we can play. I thought it would be a classic and it was."

There was no showboating in this match. No raised fists or pumping arms with every big shot. There was too much respect - and too many big shots.

"I was playing the guy with the best return in the game," said Sampras, 30, who is trying to resurrect his game after a yearlong winning drought. "It was a pleasure playing tonight. It was phenomenal."

A brilliant serve would inspire a brilliant return. A blazing forehand cross court would bring an equally powerful backhand return. A stunning dropped volley would draw an amazing exhibition of speed as one or the other would rush to the net for an incredible pickup to force yet another impossible shot.

What a night of tennis.

The victory moves Sampras into the semifinals against defending Open champion Marat Safin, who advanced with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Mariano Zabaleta. On the other side of the draw, No. 4 Lleyton Hewitt advanced to tonight's quarterfinals with a four-set victory over No. 16 Tommy Haas, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-2. He'll face young American Andy Roddick, the 18th seed.

In the other men's quarterfinal match today, No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten goes against No. 7 Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

Yesterday afternoon, Venus Williams, the defending women's champion here, was a study in poise as she almost casually crushed Kim Clijsters, 6-3, 6-1, in 65 minutes.

"I've watched her and I knew she would hit the ball hard and deep,' said Clijsters, who is seeded No. 5, just one spot below Williams in the Open draw. "`[But] this is the first time I've played her, and it is one thing to know what she does and another to be standing there in front of the ball."

The victory moved Williams into tomorrow's semifinals, where she will play No. 2 Jennifer Capriati, who advanced last night with a forceful 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 8 Amelie Mauresmo.

For Williams, the match with Capriati will be one in which she will see her opponent as the crowd favorite. Capriati is returning to the semifinals here for the first time in 10 years.

"I just think in general the fans have always loved her from the very beginning," said Williams, who has not lost to Capriati in three previous meetings. "From the time she hit her first ball. I remember. I was like a baby, but I was following it, too. ... Everyone feels like they watched her grow up ... and want her to win."

Everyone wanted to see Sampras and Agassi, too. Agassi's girlfriend, Steffi Graf, who had not been seen here over the first nine days, was spotted in a corner of the stadium last night. And in one row of seats, Tony Bennett, Tom Brokow, Morley Safer and Mike Wallace had the match covered. And so did both the competitors - until it came to the first tiebreakers.

Then it was Sampras, who was in control three out of four.

"I was kicking myself a little bit after the first breaker," Sampras said. "I was up 6-4 and my nerves got to me a little and I swung at the ball and thought, `I don't know where this is going.' And it went right in the net. One moment, I thought I had him, and the next minute I had lost the set."

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