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1999 US Open

Sampras devastated by injury

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Posted: Tuesday August 31, 1999 05:24 PM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

NEW YORK -- That sucking sound you heard emanating from Queens was the air escaping from this year's U.S. Open. His unshaven faced etched in tension, his cracking voice riven with disappointment, Pete Sampras faced a media throng and announced his withdrawal from the tournament. The culprit was a herniated disc in his lower back that he suffered while practicing with Gustavo Kuerten on Sunday.

A player whose long-avowed career goal has to been to eclipse Roy Emerson's mark of 12 Grand Slams singles titles, Sampras was patently devastated by the injury. After hitting bottom at the French Open, Sampras rallied to win Wimbledon, giving him an even dozen Slams. Following two titles on hardcourts this summer, which included wins over rivals Pat Rafter and Andre Agassi, he was salivating at the prospect of breaking Emerson's record next week, making history at the Slam he first won nine years ago. "I couldn't think of a worse time for this to happen, on the Sunday before a major tournament," he said despairingly. "Right now I'm obviously very overwhelmed."

Sampras is certainly no stranger to injuries. As great a champion as he is, the man has never been tennis' answer to Cal Ripken Jr. Already, his status was iffy, on account of a hip-flexor injury he suffered two weeks ago in Indianapolis. And at the U.S. Open alone, he broke down against little-known Peruvian Jaime Yzaga in 1994; he surrendered the contents of his stomach -- if not the match itself -- in a protracted quarterfinal battle against Alex Corretja in 1996; last year, as the No. 1 seed, he was leading Rafter in their semifinal battle when he pulled up lame with a quadriceps injury. Still, this malfunction of inner circuitry hurts worse than any other. "Because of the build-up here and the way I've been playing the past couple months, this one is [more] difficult," he said. "I'm sure these next two weeks will be tough emotionally, because I want to be here."

Sampras' withdrawal will be tough on the tournament as well. The popularity of the women's game might be growing at warp speed, but it was men who cornered the market on anticipatory buzz this week. With two-time defending champ Rafter still nursing a shoulder injury, a Sampras-Agassi blockbuster final seemed inexorable. It had all the making of the epochal moment tennis so sorely needs: The two biggest headliners in the sport. Both resurgent Americans, still keeping the game's torch in their hands. Sampras' record for Slams hanging in the balance. "It would have been awesome," said Agassi, the tournament's new favorite. "But tennis will go on and so will the U.S. Open and we'll try to make it as good as it can be."

Man of few words

Marcelo Rios' five-set win over little-known Martin Damm may not have packed much entertainment value. Not so his press conference. Here's Mr. Congeniality:

Q: Who were your childhood heroes?
A: I don't understand what you say.

Q: People you admired when you were growing up?
A: Nobody.

Q: What are your hobbies and interests?
A: Nothing.

Q: What is your greatest sports moment?
A: I don't remember, man.

Q: Come on.
A: What do you want me to tell you?

Q: Just answer the questions.
A: Don't ask me questions like that.

Q: What's your favorite movie?
A: No response.

Press official: Interview over.

Open volleys

Buried under Sampras' momentous withdrawal, Tuesday it was announced that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) agreed with the ITF's assertion that an appeals committee botched Petr Korda's drug case. As a result, Korda, who's now retired, will be sanctioned as a Class 1 doping offender and forced to relinquish his ranking points and prize money earned between July 1998 and July 1999. ... Eight players the USTA bestowed with wild cards were in action Tuesday. Combined, they won one set. ... Tuesday's day attendance was 28,095, a new single-session record for the Open. The previous record was set Monday with a paid attendance of 27,809. ... Tennis fans taking the No. 7 train to Flushing are bombarded by American Express ads featuring tennis stars. Which of the following cardholders don't belong: Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, John McEnroe or the Jensen brothers? ... No one has listed "professional tennis player" as an unenviable occupation. But here's additional fodder: A player who loses in the first round in both singles and doubles here still takes home $19,000. ... Joe Paterno is today's celebrity prognosticator: "Pete Sampras. I was wrong about him last year, but not this year." Guess what, JoePa?. ... Finally, a modest proposal: Any self-important "fan" whose cell phone beeps in the middle of a U.S. Open match is required to donate $50 to the New York Junior Tennis League.

Related information
Monday's On the Court: Draper's thoughts with late wife
Henman upset at U.S. Open; Martin, Capriati prevail
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