It's not often that Andre Agassi is regarded as a warmup act, but power tennis arrived at UCLA on Tuesday night in the form of reigning U.S. Open champion Marat Safin and a star-in-waiting, 18-year-old Andy Roddick.
Shortly after the third-seeded Agassi's 6-0, 7-6 (3) victory over James Blake in the first round at the Mercedes-Benz Cup, his longtime coach, Brad Gilbert, was busy taking in Roddick-Safin. Blake, though disappointed, smiled widely and said of the heavy hitters following his match that he "couldn't wait to catch it."
On the Stadium Court, Safin and Roddick were in something of an arms race. Roddick's arm drew admiring gasps from the crowd of 7,014 when he put down a 133 mph ace in the first set. Safin responded with aces of 127 mph and 121 mph in the next game and held to take the first set.
Roddick may have won the speed race, but the second-seeded Safin went on to serve for another day, defeating Roddick, 6-3, 6-4, in the first round. The youngster grew frustrated against Safin, tossing his racket in the second set and later shouting, "I've got groundstrokes for sale."
"I played OK, nothing special," said Safin, who had nine aces, three more than Roddick. "But the guy just give it up to me. On break point, he went for too much on the second serve."
The result kept the tournament free of its usual upsets. Fourth-seeded Pete Sampras made a successful hard-court summer debut, winning in straight sets.
Reality was better than the past for Sampras. This was his first match since his disappointing fourth-round loss at Wimbledon to Roger Federer, and he started off his pre-U.S. Open campaign with a solid 7-5, 6-2 victory over Chris Woodruff.
After constantly running the Federer match in his mind, the present was better than the replay. Sampras had 12 aces, nine in the second set, and double-faulted only twice. He lost his serve once against Woodruff in the 1-hour 17-minute first-round match.
Woodruff, though struggling in 2001, represents a challenge. Just ask Jan-Michael Gambill, who lost to Woodruff twice in Grand Slam events this year, at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
And one of Sampras' early losses this year was to Woodruff, in straight sets in an indoor event at Memphis, Tenn. Sampras took a 3-0 lead in the first set before Woodruff found his range, eventually getting back the early service break.
They stayed on serve until the 12th game of the set. Sampras broke Woodruff at 15, taking the set, and had little trouble afterward.
"I felt pretty good," Sampras said. "Got off to a really good start, let it slip a little bit in the first, played a good game to break him. In the second set, I started to pick it up quite a bit, and got that serve going and hit the ball a little better as the match went on.
"It was quite a long break since Wimbledon. It was nice to go out there and compete and play--I've been practicing and training pretty hard--to go out and put in on the line."
Sampras the showman briefly emerged just as the match hit the one-hour mark. Leading, 3-1, in the second set, Sampras elevated for one of his patented overheads.
"It's not something I try to do when I'm playing," he said. "It's up there and I give it a go. Maybe being in L.A. and being a huge Laker fan gets me a little keyed up."
Woodruff considered the post-Wimbledon notion that Sampras was winding down his career to be ridiculous.
"He's a great champion. He's told me he wants to play three or four more years," Woodruff said. "So, why not?"
Though Sampras has not won a tournament since Wimbledon last year, Woodruff said that the champion's aura has not vanished.
"Not for me," he said. "When I play him, I don't know if it's because we're both American or maybe because I have an appreciation--I'd say it's an appreciation for what he's done throughout his career. It's remarkable. When I play him, I make sure I go out on the court thinking I can win. But I also go out there knowing I'm going to have to play at the top of my game."
For those who were wondering, Agassi said he and girlfriend Steffi Graf want to get married but haven't set a date. Agassi announced Monday that the couple are expecting a boy in December.
"No, absolutely no wedding plans," Agassi said. "I wish that we were already [married], and we certainly have the desire to be. A lot determines on schedules. I've heard rumors about January, but the truth of the matter is that it is a good guess when it might work in the schedule."
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Starting at 11 a.m.
* Magnus Norman vs. Cyril Saulnier
* Carlos Moya vs. Taylor Dent
* Gustavo Kuerten vs. Michael Llodra
Starting at 7:30 p.m.
* Michael Chang vs. Pete Sampras
* Bob and Mike Bryan vs. Alex Kim and Cecil Mamiit