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Lofty goals

Agassi, Sampras aiming for greater heights in 2000

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Posted: Friday January 14, 2000 12:00 AM

  Pete Sampras Pete Sampras will be attempting to win his thrid Australian Open, and Grand Slam No. 13 overall. AP

MELBOURNE, Australia (Reuters) -- For Pete Sampras it is a place where history awaits, while Andre Agassi calls it simply a "sweet court."

Both have tasted success on the Australian Open center court and they will seek further glory at the first grand slam tournament of 2000, which starts on Monday.

Sampras, hoping to eclipse Australian Roy Emerson and become the first man to win 13 grand slam singles titles, says he is fresher than he has been in years.

Agassi, with girlfriend and former women's world No. 1 Steffi Graf at his side, is keen to build on the triumphs of 1999 when he won the French and U.S. Open crowns and became only the fifth man to win all four grand slam titles in his career.

Top seed Agassi has a soft spot for the centre court -- renamed the Rod Laver Arena this year -- after having won the title there in 1995.

Just how much he revealed after his first practice session there for this year's Open.

"Goodbye sweet court, be good to me this year," he whispered as he walked off the court after a 90-minute workout with Graf just two hours after the pair had jetted into Melbourne.

He and Graf have been the focus of frenzied attention since their arrival but Agassi, predictably, is hoping he can make a bigger splash on court than off it.

"I have way too much appreciation these days for what it takes to come back again and I have a hunch that if I slipped that would be the end of it," said the 29-year-old Las Vegan, who finished last year as world No. 1 after having tumbled to 122 in 1997.

"My goal is to hit every level I feel I can hit with my game. As an athlete you want to feel like you saw your best and I still think that's ahead of me."

Agassi and Sampras, the third seed, were both placed in the powerful top half when the draw was made on Friday and could meet in the semifinals although both have to work hard in their early matches to earn a showdown.

Agassi faces Argentine Mariano Puerta in the first round and has big-serving Australian Mark Philippoussis looming in the fourth round.

Even if he overcomes Philippoussis, the 16th seed and local favorite, he is likely to have to beat eighth seed Todd Martin in the quarterfinals in a U.S. Open final rematch.

Sampras, who missed last year's Australian Open after a hectic end to 1998 left him mentally and physically exhausted, plays dangerous Australian Wayne Arthurs in his first match.

He is scheduled to meet 14th seed Karol Kucera of Slovakia in the fourth round and then clash with the sixth seed and 1999 finalist Thomas Enqvist in the quarterfinals.

Sampras was unfazed by the draw or a 7-6, 7-6 loss to Philippoussis in a warm-up event on Friday.

"I feel good. I feel like I'm where I want to be," said the American, eager to make up for an injury-dogged season last year.

Sampras, 28, won Wimbledon and four other tournaments in 1999 but was hampered for much of the time by injury. He was forced to pull out of the U.S. Open with a back complaint and completed only eight tournaments for the year.

Significantly, he finished the year on a high by outplaying Agassi in the final of the ATP Tour world championship in Hanover, Germany, in November. Sampras also crushed Agassi in the Wimbledon decider.

This year's Open is the first Grand Slam under the revamped ranking system which came into force in the men's game this year.

With a straightforward race in which all players started the year on zero and accumulate points throughout the year, the big guns all know they need to come out firing.

"Mentally and physically I was pretty much at burnout," Sampras said of missing last year's Australian Open.

"[This year] I'm the freshest I've felt in many years coming down here. I felt I had my off-season after the U.S. Open. I had a good week and continued training all the way through to coming down here."

The prospect of faster courts at the Open -- with the balls bouncing higher as the courts heat up in the Australian summer -- are expected to favor the likes of defending champion and second seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Philippoussis, ninth seed Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands and Enqvist.

Kafelnikov has a far easier time in the bottom half of the draw, although he has yet to win a match this year.

He would most likely face fifth seed Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil or Germany's Nicolas Kiefer, the fourth seed, in the semifinals.

 
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