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Frightfully Good Show by Sampras, Ivanisevic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Riding to the rescue of men’s tennis at Wimbledon on Friday was a fiery, racket-tossing, let-it-all-hang-out kind of guy.

Introducing Pete Sampras.

If that sounds like the punch line to a joke, it isn’t. The cool and calm Sampras became emotional and intense, producing electric tennis in his 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory over 12th-seeded Tim Henman of England in the men’s semifinals.

Certainly a sublime effort was required in facing England’s last great sporting hope, Henman, as well as the vocal Centre Court crowd.

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The British supporters stirred after a numbing warmup--14th-seeded Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia defeated 1996 champion and ninth-seeded Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-7 (7-5), 15-13, in a 3-hour 22-minute semifinal. The final set lasted 77 minutes.

“The fifth set was just a horror thriller,” said Ivanisevic, who will play Sunday in his third Wimbledon final.

If the Ivanisevic-Krajicek semifinal had elements of a horror thriller, Sampras-Henman was more like something out of “Chariots of Fire,” with the country poised to crown the fresh-faced, 23-year-old Henman.

But the top-seeded and defending champion Sampras, who is pursuing his fifth Wimbledon championship, has an uncanny way of lifting his game for these big-match occasions.

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“I was very intense, and you have to be at this level and at this stage in the tournament,” Sampras said. “I felt I was playing Tim and the crowd, so obviously I was going to show a little more emotion than usual.”

After having lost his first set in six matches, Sampras complained about line calls. He also was irritated by the electronic net-cord beeper sounding frequently. In the second game of the third set, Henman hit a powerful service winner, which cracked the frame of Sampras’ racket.

Sampras, looking anything but amused, strode over to the sideline and tossed the broken racket into the crowd, hurling it over his head.

“I felt like flinging it into the crowd and loosened up a little bit,” he said. “But you know, this is what it’s all about. The atmosphere was great.”

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Said Henman: “I don’t think he was bad-tempered out there. He was pretty intense about the match. We both were.”

They stayed on serve through 11 games in the third set. Sampras, becoming increasingly comfortable at reading Henman’s serve, finally broke through in the 12th game.

Henman, trailing, 6-5, fought off two set points and came within a point of reaching a tiebreaker on his advantage. Sampras, though, came back with one of his best service returns, hitting a forehand winner.

“It’s all reaction,” Sampras said. “He went up the middle and I managed to find the ball. That got it back to deuce. It was really a key game to the match.”

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Two points later, Sampras secured the set and shouted upon winning the set. His confidence kept increasing in the first game of the fourth set when he fought off a break point and hit two aces to hold.

Afterward, Sampras beat England to calling Henman a future champion.

“He’s a very, very solid player and will eventually win this tournament one year,” Sampras said.

The disappointment was still etched on Henman’s face despite the compliments. American tennis players usually aren’t asked if they’ve let the nation down after losing, but England is, well, England.

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“Not at all. I’ve said all along that when I’m winning, I’m not playing for the nation, so when I lose I’m not letting anyone down,” Henman said.

Sampras and Henman produced a quality match after a cool afternoon of uncertainty. They were poised to take the court when Ivanisevic had two match points in the fourth set. Henman’s mother, Jane, was stationed on the stairs leading to the Friends’ Box, ready for a cold-weather match.

The weather was befitting a November in Ann Arbor, Mich., on a college football Saturday. By the time Ivanisevic and Krajicek finished firing serves at each other and the second semifinal started, the sun came out.

Cool weather or not, the match took a toll on Ivanisevic.

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“I was very tired,” Ivanisevic said. “My [butt] was sore like hell. Maybe it doesn’t look like that from up there, but I tell you I didn’t want to do anything stupid, so I don’t get the cramps. I was just walking nice and slowly, and I say, ‘Don’t try to jump. Don’t do something because you might cramp and it’s finished.’ ”

Krajicek stayed alive and fought off the two match points in the fourth set, hitting a backhand volley winner on the first, and watching Ivanisevic double-fault on the second in the 10th game.

“The only thing predictable about him is he’s unpredictable,” Krajicek said. “When he is down, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Krajicek had 42 aces to Ivanisevic’s 28.

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With no fifth-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon, the two kept on rolling on their own serves. A glimmer of light appeared for Ivanisevic in the 28th game. Krajicek, trailing, 14-13, did not put in a first serve and fell behind, 40-15.

It was match point No. 3. Krajicek missed his first serve, again, and lost the match by hitting a backhand volley into the net.

And the fifth-set horror show was over.

“I don’t think anybody bet on me when I lost the fourth set,” Ivanisevic said. “Everybody said, ‘Maybe it’s going to be 6-2, maybe 6-3 [in the fifth]. He’s gone. He’s going to lose it.’ But I did win. I was never like this in my life, and I just believed I was going to win it.”

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TODAY’S WOMEN’S FINAL: No. 3 Jana Novotna vs. No. 16 Nathalie Tauziat, Channel 4, 6 a.m.


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