NEW YORK (AP) -- Pete Sampras began his 13th U.S. Open in the uncustomary role of sentimental favorite and aging underdog.
So as he closed in on an arduous first-round victory, the sort that used to be routine, the small crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium roared in support.
''Everyone's concerned about me,'' Sampras said with a grin.
It's to the credit of the four-time Open champion that he's amused more than annoyed by talk that he should retire because he's washed up. He doesn't see it that way, even though he has gone 17 tournaments without a title and flirted with disaster Tuesday before beating obscure Julien Boutter 6-4, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8).
''I expect to do well here. I still feel like I'm one of the strong favorites,'' Sampras said. ''If I didn't win here, it would be a disappointing year. But I'm not worried about it. I feel like I've got many years left. All this retirement talk has gotten a little bit carried away.''
There was brief drama in Jennifer Capriati's night match when a grease fire at a concession stand sent smoke billowing through an upper-deck stadium entrance. Capriati, seeded second, remained focused on tennis and beat Amanda Hopmans 6-2, 6-1.
''The stadium started to get really smoky,'' Capriati said. ''It was just weird.''
No fans were evacuated and no one was hurt.
No. 4 Venus Williams began her title defense by beating Lenka Dlhopolcova 6-2, 6-3. French Open runner-up Kim Clijsters had little trouble with a recent thigh injury while defeating Pavlina Nola 6-1, 6-1.
American Chanda Rubin, sapped by the 85-degree sunshine, vomited on court midway through the third set but continued and beat Jana Kandarr 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
On the men's side, 18-year-old American Andy Roddick won one game with four shots -- all aces -- in his center court debut and beat Slava Dosedel 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.
Roddick's next opponent will be countryman Jack Brasington, who edged Gianluca Pozzi 6-3, 6-4, 2-6, 3-6, 7-6 (6). Brasington earned a berth his first ATP-level tournament by winning three qualifying matches.
Other winners included No. 4 Lleyton Hewitt, No. 5 Juan Carlos Ferrero and No. 13 Roger Federer, who ended Sampras' reign at Wimbledon this year. No. 8 Sebastien Grosjean, a two-time Grand Slam semifinalist this year, was upset by Mariano Zabaleta 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.
American Jan-Michael Gambill beat 1993 Open runner-up Cedric Pioline 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 and might face Sampras in the third round. Andre Agassi and Pat Rafter could also cross paths with Sampras before the semifinals.
''That's a lot of U.S. Open trophies in one little section of the draw,'' Agassi said.
Sampras turned 30 on Aug. 12, a milestone that usual signals the end is near -- or past -- in tennis. How many more years does he expect to play?
''Five, six, seven at least,'' he said, smiling again.
To last that long, Sampras must reverse a recent decline that has turned every match into a taxing challenge.
He needed 2 1/2 hours to beat Boutter, a Frenchman with no career titles to Sampras' 63. Clutch serves by Sampras and untimely double faults by Boutter were the difference.
''At the level he was playing, it could have been an upset,'' Sampras said.
Sampras' No. 10 seeding is his lowest at a Grand Slam tournament since he earned the first of his record 13 major titles at the 1990 Open. He hasn't won this event since 1996, hasn't won any tournament since Wimbledon in 2000 and hasn't reached the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam tournament in 2001.
Unless he wins the Open, this will be his first year without a major title since 1993.
''There's no reason to panic if I don't win,'' he said. ''I could go out and win three next year. ...
''I've raised the bar so high, and when I don't win titles every couple of months, I'm probably judged much tougher than anyone. It's a pretty high standard to live up to. It is what it is at this point. I feel like I've got a decent shot here to possibly do it.''
His confidence, motivation, fitness, foot speed and backhand have been questioned, but for whatever reason, he no longer dominates the big points or lesser opponents as he once did. This year he has lost to Chris Woodruff, Andre Ilie, Harel Levy, Alex Calatrava, Galo Blanco and Alberto Martin.
For the first time since 1996, Sampras isn't the reigning Wimbledon champion. He lost in the fourth round to Federer.
''There's nothing you can do -- just accept it, go home and be depressed,'' he said. ''For three or four days I was really down. Being home the second week of Wimbledon hasn't happened that often, so it was a very eerie feeling.''
But the slump started with a loss a year ago, when Marat Safin routed him in the Open final. A few days later, Sampras discussed the state of his career with fellow Los Angeles resident and occasional golfing partner, Wayne Gretzky.
''Wayne said when he hit 30, he needed to work harder,'' Sampras said. ''It was good to hear that. I put a conscious effort after the final here to put a lot of time into my training. That's why this year has been disappointing. I've put in the time, I just haven't gotten the results.''
© 2017. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us