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Sampras Ends Domination by Ferreira

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The player who has ended the last six years ranked No. 1 in the world, who has won 12 career Grand Slam titles and may be the best player of all time, looked across the net Friday and saw a skinny, freckled redhead from South Africa named Wayne Ferreira who has beaten him four times in a row.

For Pete Sampras, that was his motivation. Five in a row? No way.

After a shaky beginning, when Sampras served a couple of double faults to get his serve broken--a break that would cost him the first set--Sampras came back to comfortably stop that Ferreira winning streak with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory in the quarterfinals of the Mercedes-Benz Cup tennis tournament at UCLA.

And, let’s face it, most local tennis fans would love to see Sampras play top-seeded Andre Agassi in Sunday’s final. So it was with sympathy but no heartbreak that the full-house evening crowd said goodbye to 18-year-old Lleyton Hewitt of Australia. Hewitt sprained his left ankle trying to track down an Agassi drop shot 51 minutes into the first set Friday night and had to limp away and concede the match. Agassi led, 5-4, and was serving for the first set when Hewitt fell.

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In today’s semifinals, both Sampras and Agassi will play unheralded, unseeded Australians. Sampras will face 22-year-old qualifier James Sekulov, and Agassi will take on 23-year-old Andrew Ilie. Sekulov, ranked No. 236 in the world, knocked off Michael Chang, 2-6, 6-2, 6-2, and Ilie eliminated Frenchman Anthony Dupuis, 6-7 (8-6), 6-4, 6-4.

If Sampras is looking for motivation today, he could have just listened to Sekulov. The Aussies are awfully patriotic and often several of them travel together on the tour. Since another Aussie, Pat Rafter, is ranked No. 1, and since Sampras will become No. 1 again if he wins his semifinal match, Sekulov decided it would be nice to keep that top ranking in his own country. “A little motivation for me,” Sekulov said.

“Thanks for telling me,” Sampras said later, after his 1-hour 42-minute late-afternoon thrill-ride of a match against Ferreira. “I’ll go to sleep thinking about it.”

If Sampras regains the No. 1 ranking, it will mark the 27-year-old’s 271st week as the best player in tennis, breaking the record of 270 held by Ivan Lendl.

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Wearing flowered surfer shorts, a thick coating of zinc oxide to cover up a sun blister on his lips and with his hair streaked blond and red and orange, it seemed as if Sekulov had missed the exit off the 405 for the Gotcha Pro surfing competition in Huntington Beach and somehow ended up on Stadium Court.

And, Sekulov confessed, he had done a little surfing up in Santa Cruz a week ago when he was playing in a low-level satellite event. Oh, and those shorts were a gift from a surfing clothing company.

But the forehand was strictly out of a tennis textbook and his perseverance seemed to have been sucked right from his opponent. Sekulov advanced to his first ATP Tour semifinal. Of course, he had never won an ATP Tour match before either, so this week has been a definite change of course for the son of a Perth cab driver.

Chang’s game has fallen into such disrepair that Sekulov said, and not in a mean way, he expected to beat Chang. “He’s getting old now,” Sekulov said. “He’s not as good as he used to be.”

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As Chang’s ranking has plummeted, so has the 27-year-old’s confidence. “Part of [my problem] is focusing on the not-so-good things instead of the positive things,” Chang said. “That comes with a lack of confidence. It is hard to lose matches like this. It’s a strange feeling, a little bit. It’s difficult to take.”

The only complaint Agassi has about his week here is that he hasn’t played a day match. Sunday’s final is a day match. What’s the difference between night and day? “Sun, heat, the ball is quicker, the court is quicker, your attention changes,” Agassi said. OK, sorry we asked. But the final still will be a day match. Agassi will need his shades and his baseball cap, that’s all. Oh, and a win in one more night match.

THE FACTS

TODAY’S SEMIFINALS

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James Sekulov vs. Pete Sampras / 1 p.m.

Andre Agassi vs. Andrew Ilie / 7:30

****

QUARTERFINAL RESULTS

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Pete Sampras def. Wayne Ferreira, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3

Andre Agassi def. Lleyton Hewitt, 5-4, retired

Andrew Ilie def. Anthony Dupuis, 6-7, (8-6), 6-4, 6-4

James Sekulov def. Michael Chang, 2-6, 6-2, 6-2

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