`Pumped' Sampras empty of all doubt

Drive, confidence back, but hurdles formidable

U.S. Open

September 07, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - If today's semifinals are all about confidence, as No. 17 seed Pete Sampras says, he should be in pretty good shape to reach his eighth U.S. Open final.

Sampras is the cagey veteran who will meet unexpected contender Sjeng Schalken, the No. 24 seed, in the first half of the men's semifinals today. No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and No. 6 Andre Agassi will slug it out in the second semifinal to determine the finalists.

But it is Sampras who has again defied the odds and confounded his critics by becoming competitive once more in the pursuit of a Grand Slam title.

"The bad thing for Pete is that he is always being compared to his younger self," said Agassi, who is actually the older competitor at age 32, but a late bloomer who has kept his body and game competitive.

Agassi wouldn't mind meeting Sampras in the final here in a rematch of their 1995 Open final that Sampras won in four sets.

"The way Pete has been playing this year would be considered excellent by a lot of players," Agassi said. "But I think it would be an accurate statement to say that I'm impressed by how he's turned it on here."

Excellent by others' standards it might have been, but this is Sampras and his own expectations are greater. Here at the U.S. Open, where he has won so many extraordinary matches, he not only hopes, but expects, to win again.

"It's confidence," Sampras said. "It's being comfortable. It's getting into kind of a rhythm. The last week and a half, I feel like I've got my game going.

"This is our Super Bowl, and I'm pretty pumped. Ready to go. I think the days of me dominating are over, but I still feel like I have a major in me."

At 25, Schalken, of the Netherlands, is a man who has not been in many big matches like today's. But he has shown he can compete in big moments. At Wimbledon, he made it to the quarterfinals and gave Hewitt his only real problem in his run to the title, fighting back from two sets down before losing, 6-2, 6-2, 6-7 (16), 7-5. No other player took a set from the world's No. 1 player.

Here, Schalken has advanced through the draw with wins over Mark Philippoussis (fourth-set retirement because of injury), Ivan Ljubicic, Sargis Sargsian, Gustavo Kuerten and Fernando Gonzalez. In doing so, he has shown himself to be a calm, determined player whose flat strokes challenge opposing players.

"It's still not settled down in my mind that I am in the semifinal," said Schalken. "My name is between three very big players. But it feels good. I worked hard for it. ... I never thought I would have the game to beat those power players. You can see what confidence can do.

"The key will be for me to hold my service because I have a good return, very consistent and I have long arms. So [Sampras] will have to serve really well, too."

The second semifinal may be viewed as a final by many. Hewitt and Agassi are at the top of their games. Agassi has been on his toes swinging for the fences. Hewitt, young and agile, tracks down nearly every ball with speed and single-mindedness.

Hewitt is the defending U.S. Open champion and well aware that there has not been a repeat winner since his Australian countryman, Patrick Rafter, won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998.

"It's going to be a tough match against Andre," said Hewitt. "I've got to play as well as I can if I'm going to win. But, then again, he's got to play as well as he can. We've had some pretty good matches in the past, but we've never played at a Slam. That part will be interesting."

Both men have breezed through most of their matches here, though Hewitt was taken to five sets by James Blake in the third round, and Agassi needed four strong sets to get past Max Mirnyi in the quarterfinals.

Though Hewitt, at 21, is younger by 11 years, he does not see any advantage in terms of conditioning.

"Andre is in great shape," Hewitt said. "I don't care what age he is. He looks as fit as ever to me. He looks stronger than he's been probably in the past, as well, and I can't recall too many matches that Andre's lost because of his fitness. So I throw age right out the window."

Agassi is the pick of many to win this tournament tomorrow. He has been walking that little Charlie Chaplin-kind of walk back to the baseline, a sure sign of his confidence. But he is not taking anything for granted.

"It's a fine line you walk against somebody like Lleyton," he said. "You want to certainly take some chances, but you can't afford to take unnecessary risks. I think that's the balance that you always try to walk. You want to control points, but you don't want to press and it's about playing the right shot at the right time.

"Lleyton and I have never played a four-hour match," Agassi said in anticipation. "I'm not worried about his side of the court as much as I want to be making sure I'm executing my game the way I can."

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