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Swingin' in the rain: Sampras gets past Rusedski

Posted: Tuesday, September 03, 2002

NEW YORK -- Pete Sampras unfurled a backhand return winner down the line and let out an excited yell: ''Aaahhh!'' The fans responded, applauding and chanting support.

It was tough to tell who was more pleased to see Sampras hit that type of shot again.

Playing in the tournament that's brought out his best during the past two difficult years, Sampras powered into the fourth round by overcoming Greg Rusedski 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4 Monday night at a U.S. Open disrupted heavily by rain.

''I hung in there. The crowd was great. It got me going at the end,'' said Sampras, who had 81 winners and broke 1997 Open runner-up Rusedski's serve in the final game. ''It made it a little sweeter with the win. As you get older, those are moments you cherish a little more.''

Because rain wiped out all but less than an hour Sunday, and then delayed the start of Monday's action more than 7 hours, organizers scrambled to fit in as many matches as possible. After being cooped up all day, stars paraded out one after another, with Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport among the winners.

Not since 1988, his first season as a pro, has Sampras failed to make it at least to the fourth round at the U.S. Open. He's won the title four times and been the runner-up three others, including in 2000 and 2001. But the current edition of Sampras isn't the one that captured a record 13 Grand Slam titles. He came into the Open with a 20-17 match record this year and hasn't won any tournament since July 2000.

''He's a step and a half slow coming into the net. He's just not the same player,'' Rusedski said. ''I lost the match. He didn't win the match tonight. He's not playing that great. I'll be surprised if he wins his next match, to be honest with you.''

Sampras, seeded just 17th, next plays No. 3 Tommy Haas -- the man who wasn't allowed to wear his muscle shirt at the Open -- for a quarterfinal berth.

Defending champion Hewitt and two-time Open winner Agassi already are in the final eight. Hewitt eliminated No. 14 Jiri Novak 6-4, 6-2, 7-5, while Agassi beat Jan-Michael Gambill 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 and has dropped 24 games through four rounds.

Davenport and Capriati both won in straight sets to move into the quarterfinals, where Capriati will meet 10th-seeded Amelie Mauresmo, who knocked off No. 7 Kim Clijsters 4-6, 6-3 7-5. Mauresmo beat Capriati in straight sets at Wimbledon and in a hard-court Open tuneup.

No. 11 Daniela Hantuchova got past No. 8 Justine Henin 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (4) in a match stopped Sunday in the second set right after Hantuchova hurt her ankle and right thumb in a tumble on a rain-slicked court.

Hantuchova meets top-seeded Serena Williams for a semifinal spot.

Three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten was placed on Court 10, although not for long: His opponent, Nicolas Massu, quit while trailing 6-1, 5-4, citing right hamstring and groin injuries.

Kuerten's fourth-round opponent will be No. 24 Sjeng Schalken, while Arnaud Clement also won to reach the round of 16 in the bottom half of the men's draw.

Haas finished his 6-4, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Thomas Enqvist, then looked ahead.

''You can never underestimate a player like Pete Sampras. The guy really knows what he wants. The will and the power,'' the German said. ''Maybe he doesn't have the quickness. But if he serves well, it will be tough to beat him.''

On Monday, the 31-year-old Sampras made the types of mistakes he has been for a while, following errant shots by rubbing his forehead or shuffling his feet along the baseline. But Rusedski was often his own undoing. Most damaging: He double faulted twice in the first-set tiebreaker.

The third-set tiebreaker showcased Sampras' best and worst. He took a 4-0 lead with that backhand that elicited his own shout and those of spectators. ''It was a big, big point,'' Sampras said.

At 4-1, though, he tried one of his trademark overhead slams and dumped the ball into the net. He shook his head and smiled.

''I was a little embarrassed. I kind of got overanxious,'' Sampras said. ''You miss a bad shot like that one and you just have to move on.''

Both players served brilliantly for stretches, each topping 130 mph. Sampras finished with 17 aces. Rusedski had 19, eroded partly by 10 double faults.

Rusedski, who usually plays quickly, seemed to make a conscious attempt to disrupt Sampras' rhythm. Sampras bristled at the gamesmanship, complaining to the chair umpire.

Rusedski plucked his racket strings, yanked up his sagging socks, tugged on his sweat-soaked shirt, even changed rackets for no apparent reason. In sum, he was a human rain delay, as though there weren't enough of the natural kind.

Not surprisingly, Sampras -- who entered with an 18-0 record in night matches at the Open -- had the spectators firmly behind him, with nearly all chanting, ''Let's go, Pete!'' during a fifth-set changeover.

One fan took a jab at Rusedski's midcareer country change, shouting: ''All right, Canada! I mean, England!''

Sampras had break point while leading 3-2 in the fifth set but wasted it by sending a second-serve return long, then doubled over in anguish.

He kept it together, though, and two winners off his trademark forehand got him to match point. When Rusedski's forehand went wide, Sampras raised both arms in the air, then pumped his fist, while spectators regaled him: ''Pete! Pete! Pete!''



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