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Sampras Out-Aced but Not Outdone

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps it’s the nearness of Shea Stadium that brings to mind the image of a duel between two fastball pitchers. But baseball isn’t concussive enough to fully evoke what happened at the National Tennis Center across the street from the Mets’ home.

Tuesday night, Pete Sampras and Mark Philippoussis--two rocket launchers masquerading as tennis players--reduced a fourth-round singles match at the U.S. Open to a streaking yellow blur with their rapid-fire serving. It was a prodigious demonstration of power, but offered only the briefest glimpse of tennis. Points often ended with only one party having struck the ball.

Sampras--the tournament’s defending champion--was no equal for Philippoussis’ pure power, but nor could Philippoussis match Sampras’ ground strokes after the initial shot was fired. The top-seeded Sampras won convincingly, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, to advance to the quarterfinals.

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The number of aces wasn’t especially high--17 for Philippoussis, 11 for Sampras--but that’s because, as a point of pride, and in some instances, for self-defense, each player managed to get a racket on most serves.

Philippoussis has just the sort of strapping physique that lends itself to launching aces. The 19-year-old Australian is 6 feet 4 and 200 pounds and highly efficient in his fluid service motion. One of his serves Tuesday night whizzed in at 134 mph, not even his fastest of the tournament, which was 137 mph. Players without the hand-eye coordination to return Philippoussis’ serve have devised a wiser strategy of self preservation: step aside.

Philippoussis harbors a unique philosophy regarding second serves; he hits them just as hard as his first ones. The last time he played Sampras, he fired four second-serve aces, one at 126 mph.

This is a course of action that offers potential “surprise” points, but also may lead to double faults. On Tuesday night, Sampras broke Philippoussis in the third game of the first set after the Australian served a mixed-bag of two aces and four double faults.

Service breaks are hard-gained with such powerful serving. Philippoussis managed to earn only one break point, in the fourth game of the third set, but he could not convert. Sampras got only four opportunistic breaks.

The two players have met four times and never outside of a Grand Slam event. The first time was here, exactly a year ago. Philippoussis won the first set but Sampras pulled out the tough match in four sets.

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The second time was earlier this year in the third round of the Australian Open. In front of his hometown crowd, Philippoussis dismantled Sampras in a manner that is rare to behold.

“Basically,” Sampras recalled, “he kind of destroyed me.”

Then came the second round of this year’s Wimbledon. It was Philippoussis’ first year at the All England Club, but he was hardly intimidated. He accomplished the rare feat of out-acing Sampras, 28-15, with an average serving speed of 122 mph.

Still, Sampras found a way to break serve and beat Philippoussis in straight sets, avenging his loss earlier this year.

After Tuesday night’s match, Philippoussis took note of his lopsided record and laughed, “I’ll have to play better than this if it’s going to be a rivalry.”

During that Wimbledon match, no point was extended longer than five strokes. Tuesday’s possessive match had one rally with nine strokes, hardly allowing the fans to assess the full spectrum of each player’s game. The only possible strategic thinking involved in such matches is guessing which corner of the service box the ball will be burned into.

Sampras guessed best, and broke in the third game of the third set. It was an event that pleased him so that he danced his version of the Macarena as he jogged to his chair. Sadly, few noticed how light he was on his feet. By the time Sampras was serving for the match a few games later, what was left of the crowd was already streaming for the exits.

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