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It’s Sampras-Chang for All the Marbles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Clever folks, these officials at the U.S. Tennis Assn. They monkey with the seedings of the U.S. Open, aiding the Americans and angering the Europeans. The whole exercise seems cynically orchestrated to set up a Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi, television-friendly, marketing-savvy final.

But no, all along they had been secretly helping Michael Chang reach the final, starting by planting Agassi in Chang’s half of the draw. With his uninspired play against Chang in Saturday’s men’s singles semifinal, Agassi looked as if he was in on the conspiracy. Chang won easily, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

Sampras did his part to complete the scenario by finishing off fourth-seeded Goran Ivanisevic, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (9-11), 6-3.

Chang, ranked No. 3, had his seeding upgraded so that he would not face Sampras before the final. The same courtesy was extended to Agassi, who was boosted from a rank of No. 9 to seeding of No. 6.

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As it happened, the seedings proved excellent prognosticators. The top-seeded Sampras and the second-seeded Chang will meet in today’s final. Sampras has a 10-7 career edge over Chang. Chang won the first five times they played, but, beginning at this tournament in 1993, Sampras has beaten Chang in eight of nine meetings.

Each player has multiple incentives to win. Every year since 1993, Sampras has won at least two Grand Slam tournaments. He has won none in 1996.

“It’s my last chance to win a major this year,” Sampras said. “I’ve always said that’s how I evaluate my year, by how many Slams I win.”

Chang, too, would like to win what would be his second Grand Slam title. Chang’s reward for beating Sampras today would include something he has coveted but never owned--the No. 1 ranking.

Sampras and Ivanisevic played their match under sunny but blustery conditions. The expected rain appeared long after the 2-hour 20-minute match had concluded at the National Tennis Center.

Sampras said he had little lingering effects from his five-set win over Alex Corretja in the quarterfinals.

“I recovered pretty well,” he said. “I had the day off yesterday, which really helps. I felt fine.”

Both men served well. Ivanisevic had 30 aces and Sampras 24. But, beyond his serve, Ivanisevic had few weapons Saturday. Ivanisevic’s ground strokes pale in comparison to his serve. Unreliability is the main trouble. He made 42 unforced errors.

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Ivanisevic raised his game in the third-set tiebreaker and withstood four match points. The Croatian player showed a focus he had not previously displayed and won the set.

Sampras could hardly welcome a fourth set after his four-hour match against Corretja. Still, Ivanisevic didn’t expect his opponent to be tired.

“Hey, he only threw up in that match, he didn’t die,” Ivanisevic said.

Even though Sampras is known as a player with a hangdog look on the court, it was Ivanisevic, with his backward cap and his too-baggy clothes, who looked a little like a sad sack Saturday. Ivanisevic drags himself around the court as if he’s on his way to an unpleasant experience. Saturday, with Sampras serving as well as he did, it was unpleasant.

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Ivanisevic added a Catholic priest to his entourage earlier this year. At Wimbledon, the volatile Croat said the priest’s presence in his courtside box calmed his churning mind.

The priest was absent Saturday.

Chang had so little trouble with Agassi that he was forced to suggest that his win was more difficult than it looked. It took some convincing.

“Things just really seemed to click for me today,” Chang said. “I served really well, which helped me out because Andre returns serve so well.”

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Agassi lost in the second round of the French Open and in the first round of Wimbledon. Then he went on a tear, winning the Olympic gold medal and compiling a 16-1 record coming into the Open.

It was all too familiar. Last summer Agassi was the tour’s hottest player, bringing a 20-match win streak into the U.S. Open. He flaked out in the final against Sampras, causing a reevaluation of his schedule.

No more, Agassi vowed, would he care about winning just any tournament. That philosophy reared up at the Indian Wells tournament when Agassi played badly, cared less and jetted to Las Vegas to watch the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno fight, accepting a fine rather than talking to the media.

Saturday, he talked.

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“I never could find my rhythm,” Agassi said. “He [Chang] was serving big. He got on top of me, and I never could quite get out of it.”

* GRAF DISMISSES HINGIS

Swiss teen Martina Hingis gave Steffi Graf a battle but eventually lost, setting up a Graf-Monica Seles final. C18


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