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Sampras remains the man to beat as Australian Open begins

January 14, 2001

MELBOURNE, Australia - The talent-rich Australian Open field includes defending champion Andre Agassi, U.S. Open champion Marat Safin, Olympic gold medalist Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Gustavo Kuerten, who finished last year No. 1.

Yet none is the favorite of Aussie oddsmakers. At the start of his 13th year on the ATP tour, Pete Sampras remains the man to beat.

It's been three years since Sampras won a major title other than Wimbledon, and 16 months since he was ranked No. 1. Rivals such as Jim Courier and Boris Becker have retired, and Patrick Rafter - younger than Sampras - may call it quits this year.

But Sampras forges on, still a formidable force. He'll bid for his 14th major title beginning Monday night against Karol Kucera, and he pronounces himself rested, relaxed and ready.

"The hunger is still there, and I'm still very motivated,'' he said. "I must admit I'm very happy with my career and what I've done so far, but I would like to add on to what I have and enjoy these next three to five years - however long I play.''

The Australian Open may offer a hint at how much Sampras, 29, has left in the tank. The match against Kucera will be his first at a major tournament since he was routed by Safin in the U.S. Open final last September.

Perhaps that upset signified a changing of the guard. Perhaps it was merely an aberration. Among those who have yet to detect a decline in Sampras' game is his idol, Rod Laver.

"You don't see Pete play just average matches. He's always playing at his peak,'' Laver said. ``It's good for tennis that he has been in the game as long as he has, playing great tennis.''

Sampras married actress Bridgette Wilson following the U.S. Open, cut back on his fall tournament schedule and begins the new year feeling rejuvenated. He seems content to share the spotlight with such younger stars as Safin and Kuerten, but he's eager to soak up some hot Australian sunshine.

"Mentally I'm very fresh,'' he said. ``I had some time to chill. I've been keeping a lot of time indoors, as newlyweds do.''

Sampras won the Australian Open in 1994 and 1997, and his path to this year's final is daunting, with Agassi a potential quarterfinal opponent and Safin looming in the semifinals.

Safin must overcome a sore elbow, but Agassi appears to be back in top form. He beat Kafelnikov in last year's final.

"Any time you play and win somewhere, regardless of where your game is at, you instinctively remember how to play well again,'' Agassi said. ``I like the courts, I like the people. It's just a great event.''

Agassi, the second choice among bookies, is seeded sixth. Sampras is seeded third, with Kuerten No. 1 and Safin No. 2.

Sampras begins his bid for a third Australian Open title with much less fanfare than a year ago, when he sought to break Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam championships. Sampras lost a five-setter to Agassi in the semifinals, then surpassed Emerson by winning Wimbledon for the seventh time in July.

"Here last year, everyone was talking about the record and breaking it,'' he said. "I'm trying to add on to the 13, and as you get older it gets more difficult to win the majors. But as far as the pressure, I feel like it's a little bit off me.''

Sampras played in just 13 tournaments in 2000, the fewest of any top-10 player. He plans on about the same number this year, although he wants to spend more time in Europe on clay before he tries again for his first French Open title - the glaring gap in his resume.

Paris and the other majors, rather than rankings or prize money, will remain his focus this year and beyond.

"It's a grind out there,'' he said. ``But on the other hand, it's a great job to play a sport and make a good living and travel around the world. I wouldn't trade this for anything.''


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