Sampras Surprised by Safin
August 4, 2000
TORONTO - The organisers of the Tennis Masters Series-Canada tournament must be concerned that there are so few big, crowd-pulling names left in the draw. After most of the top seeds departed in earlier rounds, Pete Sampras was widely expected to go on to take the title. This would have given him a round dozen in the TMS, but he’s never won the Canadian. Today in the Quarter Finals, the all-time Masters Series’ leader was halted by a stunning defeat at the hands of Marat Safin, the fast-rising young Russian star.
The first set went to Safin 6-4. Seemingly unperturbed by his bad start, the American Grand Slam legend worked hard to take the second set and earn a third set decider. It was edge-of-your-seat stuff as the advantage swung between the two players. Safin forced a tiebreaker and the points eventually went to 10-8 in his favour, giving him a deserved 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (8) victory.
Safin has improved his game considerably since he last faced Sampras across a net, at the 1998 US Open, and was beaten. He admitted that the American had been ‘like a god’ to him, but he was relaxed and full of jaunty quips at his press conference today.
“I just told myself that I can do it, that I have enough head, enough balls to beat him”, he beamed. But he was not immodest in triumph, saying: “In the tiebreaker I lost ten years of my life! I was lucky, I was patient and I made it.”
By contrast, Sampras looked distraught at the end of the match. After congratulating Safin, he walked off court, head down, appearing oblivious of the ovation and fans clamouring for his autograph.
Asked by an insensitive reporter what had upset him, Sampras returned:
“When you’re serving for the match and you give it away on match point, you can’t be in the best of moods. But I give him full credit for playing great and going for it.”
Pressed further, Sampras admitted to feeling “a little chewed up – from not having played for a couple of weeks – the heat and humidity.”
In fact Sampras suffers from an inherited blood disorder, which sometimes gives him trouble when on-court conditions are hot and humid. He has never elaborated on the condition or used it as an excuse for losing, but it would seem to account for some of the negative body language for which he is well-known. Any physical disadvantage must be a draw-back when playing competitive sport, especially when the going gets tough, and the fact that Sampras has this condition, known as thalasemia, makes his many remarkable achievements even more amazing.
The match was mostly about serving. Pete Sampras has long been acknowledged as having one of the most precise and hardest to read serves. Knowing that he can hit the lines or just inside them so consistently, he accepts the attendant risk of double faults. Countless times in his career double faults have mattered little compared with points won. However, the hard-hitting Safin is no mean server himself and today he found the measure of Sampras. The Russian won the first set mainly due to his serve, but some of his opponent’s poor returns, which simply failed to clear the net, helped him along. The capacity crowd began to sense a possible upset.
But the Grand Slam record-holder rarely lets the loss of a first set daunt him. Unimpressed by the speed and force of the younger man’s serve, he frequently had Safin charging back and forth across court, trying to retrieve his precision shots. At one point the Russian was left staring in disbelief, as Sampras managed to return a ball which landed just inside the right sideline. Sampras took the set at 6-3.
By this time Safin was beginning to anticipate which way the American’s shots might go, although many of them were too fast for him to stop. Undaunted, he increased his ace count and managed to get ahead of Sampras, partly due to the number of unforced errors from the latter. Pistol Pete was fighting for his life now but Safin seemed equally determined and blasted back with telling shots of his own. The crowd, who were going crazy, seemed to be fairly evenly divided in their support for the two protagonists. But any tennis fan would have appreciated the excitement of such a close match: on one side of the net a comparative new-comer on fire to prove himself; on the other a wily, seasoned campaigner intent on dashing his hopes.
In the tiebreaker, although Sampras is something of a tiebreaker expert, Safin raced to a 4-1 lead. Sampras fought back, but there were more double faults from the American, including at match point. Safin, too, had wasted a match point earlier. But suddenly it was all over, with Safin ecstatic and Sampras in painful disbelief for a moment.
Afterwards the Wimbledon Champion admitted: “I didn’t really serve all that well tonight. Part of it was playing a great returner, a great passer. And part of it was the rhythm that I had. I had it on my racket and historically that was a time when I could close it out. You know, I went for it and missed it and did it again on matchpoint. Just too bad – just didn’t serve too well today. But he played very well – served big at the right times and fought hard.”
Safin will face Wayne Ferreira in his Semi-Final, the other being contested by little-known qualifier Harel Levy from Israel and Jiri Novak of the Czech Republic.
So the public were denied a dream final between Sampras and Rafter – a
repeat of the
Wimbledon Final match-up last year. The Australian suffered a recurrence of his shoulder trouble, but gamely went the distance before losing to the Czech Jiri Novak. Now there is Cincinnati and the US Open to look forward to and not content with his 13 Grand Slam titles, Sampras declared ominously: “That’s my next goal – The Open.”
Sources: Diana Luciani (Slam! Sports)
Mary Ormsby (Toronto Star)