Sampras Holds Off Kuerten in Four Sets

From Associated Press

Pete Sampras threw his arms up in triumph. Gustavo Kuerten threw his racket in anger. The boisterous crowd gave out one final roar.

In a wild finish to a 3-hour 18-minute marathon, Sampras squandered six match points Sunday before holding off Kuerten to win the Ericsson Open, 6-1, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (8).

"I was choking there at the end, feeling my nerves," acknowledged Sampras, who won his first title of the year.

The sellout crowd of 14,145 was evenly divided in its loyalty, with many fans waving Brazilian flags and singing Kuerten's nickname, Guga. But chants of "Let's go Pete!" dominated at the end.

"The crowd was huge," Sampras said. "I got chills up my spine a number of times."

Looking weary and moving slowly between points, Sampras blew a 6-2 lead in the final tiebreaker. He went ahead again, 9-8, then charged the net behind his serve. Kuerten's forehand passing shot clipped the net cord, then sailed over Sampras' racket and landed beyond the baseline.

As a relieved Sampras celebrated the victory, Kuerten swiped at the ground with his racket, then hurled it across the court. It landed by the net a mangled mess.

"Just putting away bad feelings," Kuerten explained.

The Brazilian was angry about a line call at 6-6 in the tiebreaker. A backhand by Sampras was ruled good, giving him a 7-6 lead.

"The ball went long, and they didn't call it," Kuerten said. "But you're playing great players, and they're at home. You have to account for that. I'm sure if I was in Brazil, it would have been [ruled] out."

Much of the crowd booed. Then, instead of capitalizing on the call, Sampras double-faulted.

"My nerves were getting the best of me," he said. "It happens to everybody. Anybody who says they don't choke, they're lying."

Sampras, seeded second behind Andre Agassi, earned his third title at Key Biscayne but his first since 1994. He received $410,000, and Kuerten $215,000.

The sixth-seeded Kuerten, 23, beat Agassi in the semifinals and was bidding for the first hardcourt title of his career.

"The way I'm playing, I was disappointed to lose this match," Kuerten said. "I run a lot and fight a lot, but I couldn't get it."

Sampras, who had 20 aces, dominated with his serve for much of the match. Kuerten retreated four steps behind the baseline for his returns and ended up with six break-point chances, converting only one. In one game, all four of Sampras' points came on aces. In another game, Kuerten never put the ball in play.

"He has the greatest service in the game," Kuerten said.

But the lone service break against Sampras cost him dearly. It came when he served for the second set at 5-4.

"I felt I was playing about as well as I could," Sampras said. "Then the whole match changed in five minutes. He made me work, the crowd got involved and from there it was a dogfight."

Sampras prevailed for his 62nd title, which ties him with Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas for fourth place on the career list. Jimmy Connors leads with 109.

Next up for Sampras is the U.S. Davis Cup team's match this weekend against the Czech Republic at the Forum. Then he'll switch to his least-favorite surface for the clay-court season.

Sunday's arduous duel was good preparation for clay. "I made it pretty difficult and interesting for my friends and family watching at home. I tortured everybody," Sampras said. "I haven't played a match this tough in many months."

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