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Sampras Resurfaces, and He’s Ready to Go : U.S. Open: Defending champion appears sharp in practice session with Edberg.

TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

There was a Pete Sampras sighting Sunday. Turns out he is alive and well and about 99% ready to defend his U.S. Open tennis title the next two weeks.

Sampras is the No. 1-ranked men’s player in the world, winner of four of the last five Grand Slam events. He is currently so much better than the rest of the men’s field that no less than Boris Becker said recently, with only partial tongue in cheek, that his goal and that of most of the other top men right now is to “try to bother Pete a little bit.”

Sampras, after winning his second consecutive Wimbledon title this summer and limping through a Davis Cup match July 17, disappeared from the tennis scene. He canceled out of tournaments in Washington, Toronto, Cincinnati and Indianapolis--the traditional summer hardcourt tuneup events for the Open--and even pulled out of the doubles competition last Tuesday at a tournament called the Hamlet Cup in Commack, N.Y., where he had been scheduled to play with Richey Reneberg.

The culprit was a pair of new shoes that caused a sore left ankle, at first diagnosed as tendinitis and, more recently, as calcium deposits on a ligament. This was no injury of convenience to get out of tournament commitments; nor was it one of those soccer injuries where the weeping and drama far outstrip the pain.

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His coach, Tim Gullikson, said Sunday morning, “When Pete pulled out of the doubles last Tuesday, he did so because he just couldn’t have played. The doctor said he couldn’t go, that he still needed more rest.”

That’s what made Sunday morning’s Sampras sighting so significant.

It was 10:45 a.m. on Center Court at the U.S. Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow. Sampras was playing practice games with Stefan Edberg, the only man other than Sampras to win the U.S. Open in the 1990s--Sampras won in 1990 and ’93, Edberg in ’91 and ’92. People pay hundreds of dollars to see these two play. But since this practice session wasn’t a scheduled event, the crowd was 46.

Those who watched closely saw the Sampras of old. The serve crackled, the movements were fluid, the timing sharp. The two superstars played for more than 1 1/2 hours and, had anybody been keeping score, Sampras would have won. What really counted, though, was how Sampras’ heavily taped left ankle fared.

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“It’s OK, not too bad,” Sampras said. “I felt good out there.”

Gullikson agreed.

“I’m sure it is a little tender, and I’m sure it is going to be,” he said. “But he moved pretty good out there today, even though he is probably still holding back a little. I’m confident it is going to be A-OK.”

Gullikson, who took over as Sampras’ coach in 1992, when Sampras was ranked No. 6, said he is stepping up the intensity and frequency of the practice sessions. Sampras plays 22-year-old South African qualifier Kevin Ullyett in the first round, but it hadn’t been determined as of Sunday morning whether that match will be Tuesday or Wednesday.

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“I’m watching that closely, so that we can ease back a bit the day before he plays,” said Gullikson, who added that Sampras had also practiced hard the day before against qualifier Wade McGuire, a friend from the Tampa area and more of a baseliner than Edberg.

“I want him to get comfortable for any kind of game, but mostly I’m doing what I’ve always done with Pete--keep it simple. I want his mind uncluttered when he goes out there. I want him at such a high level, as he has been the last year and a half or two years, that the other guys have to adjust to him, rather than him adjusting.

“Pete playing at his best is like the old Green Bay Packers. They were going to run the power sweep, you knew they were going to run it, and it was up to you to stop it.”

Steffi Graf, seeded No. 1 among the women, has also been bothered by an injury that, like Sampras’, is expected to be sufficiently healed to allow her to be the likely winner. Graf, who won U.S. Open titles in 1988, ’89 and ’93, will test her sore back in a first-round match Tuesday or Wednesday against wild-card entry Ann Mall of La Mesa.

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The second-seeded players each have a match on opening day today. Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia will play on the Grandstand court against Markus Zoecke of Germany, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario of Spain will take on Linda Ferrando of Italy in the opener on Center Court. Although both matches should easily follow form, Ferrando is best known for ousting Monica Seles in the 1990 U.S. Open.

Among the more interesting story lines in this year’s event will be in women’s doubles, in which Natalie Zvereva and Gigi Fernandez will attempt to complete the doubles Grand Slam that eluded them a year ago. Last year, they won the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles before going out in the U.S. Open semifinals to Sanchez Vicario and Helena Sukova.

This year, Zvereva suffered a stress fracture in her ribs just prior to the women’s event at La Costa the first week in August. She pulled out of that tournament, and also the women’s event at Manhattan Beach. The injury remains serious enough for her to also have pulled out of the singles here, but she will play doubles in her quest for the Slam, something that hasn’t been achieved in women’s doubles since Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver did it in 1984.

In men’s doubles, last year’s winners, Ken Flach and Rick Leach, both U.S. Davis Cup veterans, have split up. Flach will play with his brother, Doug, and Leach with South African Danie Visser. Neither team is seeded.

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Tennis Notes

John McEnroe avenged his defeat of a year ago in the third annual Arthur Ashe AIDS Tennis Challenge, beating Andre Agassi on Sunday in a 9-7 tiebreaker that featured the normal clowning for a national television audience. The highlights were Agassi’s 117-m.p.h. serve aimed at McEnroe’s head that barely missed and chair umpire Bill Cosby’s obvious bias toward the older McEnroe. A crowd of 15,763, most of whom paid $12 each, helped to further contribute to the Ashe AIDS Foundation, which has raised more than $4 million in three years. . . . The men’s and women’s U.S. Open singles champions will each receive $550,000, an increase of $15,000 from last year. . . . The U.S. Tennis Assn. will honor the 25th anniversary year of Rod Laver’s 1969 Grand Slam sweep with a Rod Laver Day here Sept. 7. Laver, a resident of Rancho Mirage, won $16,000 the last time he won the U.S. Open in ’69. . . . Meilen Tu, 16, of Northridge will make her U.S. Open debut today, playing the first match on Court 12 against Silvia Farina, a 22-year-old from Italy. Tu got a berth by winning the USTA Junior title this year. . . . Gabriela Sabatini, who won the U.S. Open in 1990, has become pretty much of a non-factor on the tour and is seeded eighth. . . . Amy Frazier, who went through the L.A. Slims tournament without losing a set, is seeded 16th. . . . As in past years, the USA cable network will handle U.S. Open telecasts when CBS is not. USA will carry 86 1/2 hours of the event, starting this morning and going right through the event’s final day, when it will show the women’s doubles final. USA’s main commentators will be John McEnroe, Tracy Austin, Virginia Wade and Barry McKay. . . . CBS will handle 39 hours of the prime matches, with telecasts the first weekend through Labor Day and Saturday and Sunday of the final weekend. Announcers include Jim Nantz, Mary Carillo, Tim Ryan and Tony Trabert.


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