Who is this guy?
Fired-up Sampras takes it to Rafter, faces Agassi next
Updated: Tuesday September 04, 2001 8:53 AM
NEW YORK (AP) -- Pete Sampras rediscovered his greatness Monday, dominating a dangerous opponent with nearly flawless tennis punctuated by a brilliant sequence of shots on the final point.
Disproving detractors who contend he's washed up, Sampras won a rare fourth-round showdown of former champions at the U.S. Open, beating Pat Rafter 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-4.
Sampras won't have long to savor his sweetest victory since winning Wimbledon last year. He will face Andre Agassi for the 32nd time in the quarterfinals Wednesday.
"Doesn't get any easier, that's for sure," Sampras said. "Another heavyweight that I'm up against. He, like Pat, brings out the best in me."
Such marquee matchups, more typical of the final weekend, are Sampras' dubious reward for failing to win a title in his past 17 tournaments. Now 30, he came into the Open with the No. 10 seeding, his lowest since winning the first of his record 13 Grand Slam titles in 1990.
But the challenging draw and whispers about retirement have revived Sampras' game. He took charge at the start against the No. 6-seeded Rafter, then held off the two-time champion's comeback bid with a thrilling finish.
Serving at 4-5 in the final game, Rafter dug a 15-40 hole, erased two match points and then confronted a third, which produced the longest, wildest rally of match.
Chasing down a crosscourt volley, Sampras whipped a running forehand that sent Rafter into retreat. Sampras sprinted forward and punched a volley into the corner. Rafter dug it out with a lob, but Sampras slammed an overhead for the victory.
"I scrambled pretty good there at the end," Sampras said. "I really felt like we were going to a tiebreaker, which I didn't really look forward to playing, to be honest with you. It was nice to end it at that point."
His relief prompted an unusual celebratory outburst. As the stadium erupted, Sampras arched his back and threw uppercuts with both fists.
"It's a huge match, playing Pat," Sampras said. "You have to emotionally treat it like a final. At least I did. I wanted to show some emotion."
The No. 2-seeded Agassi looked just as impressive. Bidding for his third Open title, Agassi never lost serve against No. 13 Roger Federer and won 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
"I felt great about really every part of my game," Agassi said. "It just was coming off my racket so solid."
Sampras leads their rivalry 17-14, but Agassi has won the past three meetings. They haven't played at the Open since Sampras beat Agassi in the 1995 final.
"A lot of history," Agassi said. "It's a wonderful opportunity to play a high-quality level of tennis."
Defending champion Marat Safin, seeded third, beat No. 14 Thomas Johansson 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3). Safin will play Mariano Zabaleta in the quarterfinals.
On the women's side, No. 2 Jennifer Capriati moved into the Open quarterfinals for the first time since 1991, when she was 15. The winner of two Grand Slam titles already this year, Capriati erased nine of 10 break points against her and beat Barbara Schett 6-3, 6-3.
"It's almost like I play better on those points," Capriati said. "Maybe I just handle the pressure well. For as long as I've been playing, you just get used to it."
Capriati's opponent Wednesday will be No. 8 Amelie Mauresmo of France, who edged compatriot Nathalie Tauziat 6-0, 6-7 (1), 6-3.
Defending champion Venus Williams, seeded fourth, won the final 10 games to beat Sandrine Testud 6-4, 6-0. Her quarterfinal opponent will be No. 5 Kim Clijsters, who beat No. 11 Elena Dementieva 7-5, 4-6, 6-2.
On a warm, cloudless afternoon, Sampras' familiar mannerisms were on display, from the tug of the shirt shoulder to the wipe of the brow.
The booming serves and deft volleys were familiar, too. Thanks to that combination, he faced only two break points in 20 service games and erased them both.
More surprising were Sampras' lashing returns, especially with the backhand, supposedly the shot that made him vulnerable in recent months. And despite aggressive shotmaking, he committed only 14 unforced errors in 2 1/2 hours.
Rafter, playing perhaps his final Grand Slam match, struggled at first to match Sampras' level. He blew an easy high volley to lose serve in the fourth game, which cost him the opening set. In the second set, he lost serve twice more, with Sampras cracking a forehand winner from three steps behind the baseline for a 4-1 lead.
The near-capacity New York crowd, fearful of a three-set sweep, began to side with the Australian.
"We don't want to go home!" a fan shouted, and Rafter nodded in response.
"I thought he said, 'Do you want to go home?'" Rafter said later with a smile.
At any rate, he began to serve better, and in the tiebreaker he smacked two aces and two service winners to force a fourth set.
As shadows crept across the court, another tiebreaker appeared inevitable. But Rafter opened the last game by blowing two easy volleys, and a leaping Sampras overhead set up the final point.
"He was definitely the better player today," Rafter said. "A few areas of my game weren't real crisp, and Pete made me pay for it."
At the end of the year, Rafter, 28, plans to take a six-month break that might turn into retirement. Sampras plans to keep playing for another five years at least, which suddenly seems plausible in the wake of Monday's performance.