Sampras exposes the boy in Safin
American back on song as he gains revenge for
US Open final defeat
Decenber 1, 2000
Having won his seventh Wimbledon title this year on one leg, thereby completing a record 13 grand slam titles, Pete Sampras might have been expected to turn up for this year's end-of-season Masters Cup with at least one arm tied behind his back just to even matters up a little for his fellow professionals.
The fact that he had not played a competitive match since so dramatically losing in straight sets to Russia's Marat Safin in the final of the US Open in September appeared to be reason enough to suppose Sampras might struggle just a little in Portugal, and when he lost 7-5, 6-0 on Tuesday in his opening round-robin match to Australia's Lleyton Hewitt the doom merchants cried woe and thrice woe.
But a quick canter around the field against Alex Corretja, whom he beat 7-6, 7-5, left Sampras as frisky as a young foal yesterday when he gained some small measure of revenge against Safin, the putative world No1, with a 6-3, 6-2 demolition in a little more than an hour.
In truth poor Safin was as nervous as a newly ordained priest preaching to a nave full of bishops. He arrived here having taken over from Sampras under the old ranking system during the Paris Indoor Open at Bercy, but it was immediately clear that he was still in awe of the great American.
"I won the US Open but I don't think I am favourite here," Safin said. "If you meet Pete in a final perhaps you can win one in 10. He has won the Masters five times. He will win the tournament. Everybody knows this. I do too."
By beating Safin, Sampras finished top of the red group, which leaves the young Russian with a decidedly tricky semi-final today against that other American master Andre Agassi, who has been playing as well as, and frequently better, than anybody.
Yesterday he won his third successive match, defeating Sweden's Magnus Norman 6-3, 6-2. Indeed there seems a real possibility that Sampras and Agassi will meet in tomorrow's final, a repeat of last year when Sampras won.
"Today I was a different player, the best of the week by far," said Sampras. "There has been a huge transformation during the past couple of days.
"Marat played unbelievably against me at Flushing Meadows and if he had played like that again I might have struggled. But Andre and I are far from stepping aside."
The tone of the match was set early. On the very first point Safin mis-hit a winner off a Sampras first serve, but it was eight minutes and 12 points later that the Russian won his second point and by then he was 3-0 down.
"Sampras for US President," read a banner, but he was looking for a quicker outcome. Safin suddenly appeared clumsy and awkward. At Flushing Meadows he was virtually nerveless, hammering back the Sampras serve like a shipwright striking rivets. Sampras aged; Safin strutted. This time the boy in the Russian was revealed.
Two rackets were broken on the way to losing his serve in the second set. He was officially warned and roundly jeered by the Portuguese crowd. Safin clapped them in mock approval and then sat on his chair, staring distractedly at his third racket.
The Russian had his moments, but they were few and far between. His only break point against the Sampras serve came in the last game, but the American, who will finish the season ranked No3, drilled the ball to Safins' backhand for deuce, and finished him off with an ace down the middle.
For an instant Safin stood stock still. He might have offered a desultory and disappointed hand shake but instead ran forward, clasped Sampras's hand warmly and patted the American several times on the back.
"Everything today was a small disaster," Safin said. "I couldn't do the simple things today. If I play this way against Andre I will have no chance. It's nice to be No1, but you have to have it in your mind that you are No1. I have to fight and show thepeople how and why I got there."
"He deserves it," added Sampras. "He's won the big titles this year." But maybe not this one.
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