Sampras Howls to Five-Set Victory
In one full-throated bellow, Pete Sampras let loose all the exasperation he kept bottled up through five sets of a tight, tired and distinctly ugly flirtation with danger.
Sampras’ year of misery very nearly ended in ruin Friday in the second round of the U.S. Open against an undistinguished young Czech, Jiri Novak, who made the defending champion and top seed look so vulnerable.
Sampras, who sprayed 66 unforced errors, survived this match less on power or guile than on gritty determination, a 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 victory that was a testament to his sheer refusal to lose.
“It was the fifth set of the U.S. Open. This is it. Either you go home tomorrow, or you stick around. I decided to stick around,” Sampras said. “I never felt I would lose.”
Despite 18 aces, three more than the 21-year-old Novak, Sampras also needed a little luck, a couple of gifts and one acrobatic leap at the end to win.
“I was missing, pressing a little, going for too much. It was one of those matches when I didn’t play great,” said Sampras, who is trying to salvage a disastrous year with at least one Grand Slam title. He lost in the third round at the Australian, then the semifinals of the French shortly after his coach and friend, Tim Gullikson, died. Sampras’ bid for a fourth straight Wimbledon title ended in the quarterfinals.
At 2-2 in the final set against Novak, the Czech handed him two presents with two double-faults to fall behind 0-40.
“It was a very difficult moment in the match because I had love-15 down, and I think I make the ace,” Novak said of a serve called wide. “The serve was good, and I lost concentration. Then I make the two double-faults. I think it was the most important moment in the match.”
Novak, ranked No. 47, saved the next two break-points, but ultimately yielded with a backhand into the net after a long baseline rally reminiscent of the 22-stroke rally Sampras won against Andre Agassi in the final last year.
This time, with a crucial break for a 3-2 lead, Sampras turned to the roaring fans and outshouted them as he pumped his fists as if he had won the match.
Yet for all the anxiety he released with that yell, the match really wasn’t over. Sampras simply wasn’t playing well enough to be so cocksure of victory.
He double-faulted for the fifth time and barely managed to hold serve to 4-2. Then after two exchanges of serve, Sampras looked unsteady again as he served for the match at 5-4. He clubbed his sixth double-fault to go to 30-40, the possibility of the match slipping away again suddenly staring him in the face.
Sampras played cautiously to put himself in position for a winner, then went for it with a huge forehand down the line that Novak could barely reach and dumped into the net. Confident now, Sampras unleashed his fastest ace of the match, a 124 mph screamer that set up match point.
Still, the outcome seemed unsure when Novak finessed a beautiful topspin lob just inside the baseline, sending Sampras scurrying to the back fence, which he virtually climbed to float the ball back.
“Once he got over my head, I knew it was going to take a pretty good bounce,” Sampras said. “I just kind of hit it. I didn’t know where it was going to go because the wind was swirling around. It could have went over the stadium.”
Instead, it landed between the service box and the baseline.
Novak, either surprised or weary, caved in at last with a forehand into the net that ended the match.
“I think it was the best atmos Mark Philippoussis of Australia and fourth-seeded Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia served up a spate of aces Friday in powering their way into the third round.
Lindsay Davenport, one of the biggest hitters on the women’s tour, overpowered Anne-Gaelle Sidot of France 6-0, 6-3 to move into the fourth round. The match took just 54 minutes.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Today’s featured matches at the U.S. Open:
Beginning 8 a.m. PDT
* Men--Vince Spadea vs. No. 2 Michael Chang; No. 6 Andre Agassi vs. Jan Siemerink.
* Women--No. 1 Steffi Graf vs. Natasha Zvereva.
* Men--Arnaud Boetsch vs. Jeff Tarango; David Wheaton vs. Alex O’Brien.
* Women--Naoko Kijimuta vs. No. 16 Martina Hingis; No. 3 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario vs. Elena Likhovtseva.
Beginning 4:30 p.m. PDT
* Women--Anna Kournikova vs. No. 14 Barbara Paulus.
* Men--Sergi Bruguera vs. No. 3 Thomas Muster.