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U.S. OPEN : Pioline Is His No. 1 Problem : Men’s semifinals: Sampras moves to top of rankings after beating Volkov, but it won’t mean much if he loses in final to Frenchman, a winner over Masur.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can the Wimbledon champion, an American with a straightforward tennis game of serves as hard as concrete and groundstrokes so flat you could slip them in an envelope, beat a Frenchman who has never won a tournament but goes in swinging like the doors of a bistro?

Hey, anything’s possible this year at the U.S. Open, which is offering us a final between Pete Sampras and Cedric Pioline.

Sampras, who assumed the No. 1 ranking the moment his 16th ace bounced swiftly past Alexander Volkov on Saturday, also carries the label as the favorite as he lopes into the final today against Pioline.

After blasting his way past an increasingly disinterested Volkov, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, in the semifinals, Sampras said he is prepared to deal equally with both lofty expectations and the high-flying Pioline.

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“Today, I was expected to win, I came through,” Sampras said. “I’m expected to win tomorrow, and I’ll go out and do what I do and hopefully things will work out.”

It’s probably not going to be at all easy against Pioline, the 24-year-old from Paris who worked his way into his first Grand Slam final with a 6-1, 6-7 (7-3), 7-6 (7-2), 6-1 victory over Wally Masur in the first semifinal.

Pioline, who is 0-2 against Sampras, faces as difficult an assignment as Sampras, but not the same pressure to win.

“Oh, he is going to be tough,” Pioline said. “I mean, he is very good player. He is the top player.”

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For Sampras, it is his third U.S. Open final in the last four years. At 19, he became the youngest U.S. Open champion when he won in 1990. Last year, he lost to Stefan Edberg.

When the new computer rankings are released Monday, Sampras will once again be No. 1, but it could be a hollow milestone if he fails to sidetrack Pioline.

Moments after defeating Masur, Pioline already was busy making an accounting of Sampras’ assets.

“Good serve, good forehand, good backhand, good volley, good smash, good legs, good mental, good player,” he said.

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Good luck, Cedric.

Volkov had almost no luck against Sampras. He didn’t get a single break-point opportunity and lost in 1 hour 48 minutes.

“He’s No. 1 player, what else, I don’t understand,” Volkov said. “What else you want me to tell you? You want me to tell you he serve well? Yes, he serve well. Everyone on the court can tell you he serves well, and you ask me, fine.”

Sampras served well, all right. He won 38 of 40 points on his first serve and appeared to be ready to take on the first Frenchman to reach the U.S. Open final in 61 years.

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Pioline got to the final first. Masur hung tough until the fourth set, which was over before you could throw a shrimp on the barbie.

There was one strategy, Masur decided.

“To come back, you need the guy to choke,” Masur said. “You could read his body language and see that he wasn’t getting nervous at all.”

Instead, Pioline was getting ready for his Grand Slam final debut. To get there, he not only needed to forget about how he upset Jim Courier and Andrei Medvedev in pressure-packed matches, but also to forge past the wily Masur.

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Pioline said the best way to do that was to chill out.

“For this one, I was very cool,” he said. “I mean, I was very good, very good. I hope it is going to continue.”

Maybe so, although Sampras’ hot serve has been known to take some of the frost off even the coolest competitor. In any event, Pioline was plenty cool from the third set on, saving four break points in the third set and winning the tiebreaker in a breeze, with Masur dribbling a weak backhand into the net on set point.

With a two sets-to-one lead, Pioline needed only 28 minutes to wrap it up, leaving Wally to wonder if it might have been different if he had converted even one of his seven break-point chances.

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“On some key moments, I didn’t do any damage,” Masur said. “He had too much game for me at certain periods of the match.”

As for Volkov, the critical period of his match was right after he lost the first set. Sampras earned a set point on Volkov’s serve with a booming forehand down the line, then cashed it in when Volkov knocked a forehand long.

The rest of the way was predictable, given Volkov’s reputation of, well, not trying too hard when he gets behind.

The match ended when Sampras splattered the middle of the court with one last ace and Volkov didn’t budge. He didn’t move a foot, an arm or an eyebrow in an effort to reach the ball.

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“I won the second set, I could see him just kind of, I don’t know, lose interest,” Sampras said. “I think he knew he was in trouble.”

Another kind of trouble arrives in the final.

“Anything can happen,” Sampras said. “Hopefully, I’ll serve well and give it my best shot.”

U.S. Open Notes

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Attention, Cedric Pioline: For what it’s worth, five times in the last seven years the player who won the first men’s semifinal wound up winning the final. The only exceptions were Ivan Lendl in 1987 and Pete Sampras in 1990. Pioline played the first semifinal Saturday. . . . Ellsworth Vines, 81, who was a straight-set winner in 1932 over the last Frenchman to reach the U.S. Open final, watched Saturday’s matches at his home in La Quinta. Said Vines of his 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Henri Cochet: “That was a long, long time ago.”

The U.S. Open is the richest tournament of the year, awarding $9.02 million. Men and women receive equal prize money, the only Grand Slam that follows such a practice. First-round losers won $8,000. Graf earned $535,000 for winning the women’s title, Helena Sukova $267,500 as runner-up. . . . Nicole London of Rolling Hills and Julie Steven of Wichita won the junior girls’ doubles title, defeating Hiroko Mochizuki and Yuka Yoshida of Japan, 6-2, 6-3.


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