Sampras survives serious scare

Defending champion needs five sets to take Wimbledon match

Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England -- The future of American tennis arrived on Centre Court at Wimbledon, and the reign of Pete Sampras nearly became part of the past.

With a charismatic mix of youthful cool and zeal, 18-year-old Andy Roddick looked right at home on the sport's most hallowed ground, beating talented Swede Thomas Johansson in the second round Wednesday, 7-6 (1), 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (3).

Sampras, playing on Court 1 a few hours later, nearly fell victim to one of the greatest upsets in Grand Slam history before beating obscure Briton Barry Cowan 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-3.

''It definitely got the heart going,'' Sampras said.

Cowan, 26, was an unlikely candidate to endanger Sampras' bid for a record eighth Wimbledon title. With a 5 o'clock shadow and disheveled hair, the left-handed Englishman looks like he belongs in a rugby scrum rather than on a tennis court. He has a 4-18 career record, a ranking of 265th and no tournament titles to 63 for Sampras.

But Cowan's big serve was at its best, and he volleyed brilliantly for much of the match.

''It doesn't matter what he's ranked,'' Sampras said. ''On grass, with his serve, the way he was playing, you can't think, 'This is going to be the upset of the century,' which it could have been.''

While Sampras ultimately rose to the occasion, Roddick did the same with much less anguish. Less than a year into his career, it's already apparent the teen-ager is comfortable on the big stage, and against the 11th-seeded Johansson, he embraced the biggest stage in all of tennis.

''I got goose bumps when I was walking out there,'' Roddick said. ''It's a place like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park or something. It's kind of majestic.''

Roddick has been touted as the next American Grand Slam champion, and with a booming serve well suited for grass, there's no telling how far he can go during the fortnight.

Playing in just his third major tournament, he'll likely be back on Centre Court for a third-round match Friday against another big server, three-time Wimbledon runner-up Goran Ivanisevic.

''Goran at Wimbledon -- I'm really looking forward to it,'' Roddick said.

While A-Rod is on the rise, Ivanisevic is trying to resuscitate his career. Because his ranking has plummeted to 125th, he needed a wild card to get into the tournament. Thanks to Wednesday's 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Carlos Moya, the colorful Croat has reached the third round at a Grand Slam event for the first time since the 1999 U.S. Open.

''When I play good, then I think I can beat anybody here,'' Ivanisevic said. ''But when I play bad, then I cannot even beat some women on the tour.''

U.S. Open champion Marat Safin also won. Women advancing included Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams.

With the Williams sisters on course for a showdown in the final, their father, Richard, renewed his criticism of Britain's developmental system. Only one British woman reached the second round, and she lost Wednesday.

''If I can produce two kids, this country should be able to produce at least one,'' Williams said.

Capriati continued her bid for a Grand Slam sweep by beating Francesca Schiavone 6-3, 6-1. With the victory, Capriati improved to 16-0 this year in major tournaments.

But as Roddick's popularity soars, he's beginning to challenge even Capriati for attention.

''Yeah, I've been getting asked a lot about Roddick,'' she said. ''It's great. I mean, he's got a lot of pizzazz.''

With his hat brim pulled low over his eyes like a young gunslinger, Roddick outdueled Johansson, who had won his past 11 matches, all on grass. By the final set, the not-so-stoic Swede was tossing his racket to the ground in frustration.

When Roddick closed out the win with a 125 mph serve, he gave the crowd a thumbs-up sign.

''Centre Court is probably the most prestigious place to play in tennis,'' he said. ''To get a chance at such a young age, I really cherish that.''

Judging by the cheers, fans seemed to enjoy their introduction to the newest star in the men's game. Among those impressed was Australian Olympic hero Cathy Freeman, who watched from the royal box.

''The American guy, Roddick, had a bit of attitude right from the start,'' she said. ''He's got something else.''

She may be right. Many of the game's greatest players won their Centre Court debut, including Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Stefan Edberg and, in 1992, Sampras.

A year later, Sampras began his 55-1 run at Wimbledon. The latest win looked to be routine until the third set, when Cowan began to outplay Sampras with a series of big serves, sizzling returns and acrobatic volleys. The partisan crowd roared with each point Cowan won, and even cheers from the packed picnic terrace outside Court 1 were audible in the stadium.

With the evening light fading, Sampras seemed to regain control by taking a 4-0 lead in the final set before Cowan made one more charge. Serving at 4-2, Sampras faced two break points and erased each with an ace. He held that game, then served out the final game at love to complete the harrowing victory, his 30th win in a row at Wimbledon.

Sampras improved to 31-12 in five-set matches, a big reason he has won a record 13 Grand Slam titles.

''You always believe in yourself, that this is not a panic situation,'' he said. ''There are some tense moments. But those are moments where you have to draw on some experience and remember who you are and where you're playing.''

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