Since it was ladies day in the desert, men's stars Pete Sampras, Gustavo Kuerten and Patrick Rafter had to settle for nice wins and little fanfare in the Tennis Masters Series.
While the Women's Tennis Assn.'s sister act, Venus and Serena Williams, had the place abuzz with quarterfinal victories putting them in a rare semifinal matchup Thursday, Sampras and Kuerten had to squirm out of difficult circumstances and Rafter had merely to blast a few big serves.
And in the featured night match, fourth-seeded Andre Agassi, the other major men's attraction, fought his way back from a 1-4 deficit in a first-set tiebreaker against German Tommy Haas and battled in true Agassi form to win, 7-6 (5), 6-3. "I thought it was a real good match, highly competitive," Agassi said.
Sampras, emerging from an early-season slump in which he lost three matches in a row for the first time since 1997, got past Frenchman Fabrice Santoro, 6-3, 3-6, 6-0. Sampras started fast and served well early, then seemed to get impatient and rushed things in the second set against a veteran player who is the king of two-handed slices and chops and who was one of a handful of players who had a winning record against the all-time Grand Slam event winner. Before Wednesday, Santoro was 3-2 against Sampras, but all three wins were on clay.
"In the beginning of the third set," Sampras said, "I just tightened my game a bit. You have to stay patient against Fabrice because he doesn't miss much. . . . He's crafty. He's not an easy guy to play."
Kuerten, seeded two notches above Sampras at No. 1, was breezing along nicely against Newport Beach's Taylor Dent, one set up and 5-1 in the second. But the big-serving 19-year-old, who got into the event with a wild card and beat veteran South African Wayne Ferreira in the first round, scrambled back and got into a tiebreaker, where he converted his third set point with an ace.
But Dent lost his composure a bit over a line call early in the third set and the Brazilian veteran gave him a one-set lesson in intelligent tennis, taking the third in 26 minutes to complete a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2 victory.
Kuerten called Dent "a dangerous young guy." Dent said that, while he got away with a sore back and some mediocre serving against Ferreira, he couldn't Wednesday. "I'd be interested in my first-serve percentage," he said. "It would be appalling, I would think."
At 43%, it was certainly not great.
Kuerten's win gave him a streak of 14 in a row, and he acknowledged afterward that, at the moment, he is close to being in what tennis players on hot streaks call "the zone."
He said, "You get to the stage where you go to the court, you don't think about the way you are playing, the way the guy's going to serve or react, you just hit the ball where you want it."
Rafter, playing extremely well for somebody who spends lots of time talking about the joys of retirement--"Every time I get on an airplane or check into yet another hotel room, I think how great it will be not to do this"--crushed France's Arnaud Di Pasquale, 6-2, 6-2, in 1 hour 3 minutes. Rafter, seeded 11th, called it a "convincing win" and a "confidence builder" and said that his serve-and-volley game obviously won out against the baseliner, who was facing the Australian for the first time.
"My plans are pretty much the same every time out," Rafter said. "I'm going to come in. You've got to pass me."
Four other seeded players advanced. No. 6 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia beat qualifier Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand, 6-3, 6-3; No. 10 Tim Henman of England beat Cedric Pioline of France, 6-3, 6-3; No. 13 Arnaud Clement of France beat Gianluca Pozzi of Italy, 6-3, 6-4; and No. 16 Sebastian Grosjean of France stopped Carlos Moya, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (3).
Two years ago at this event, Moya won a match that propelled him to No. 1 in the rankings, and an on-court celebration was held for him. Currently, he is No. 24.
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* Stadium court: Goran Ivanisevic vs. Yevgeny Kafelnikov; (Not before noon) Martina Hingis vs. Kim Clijsters; Nicolas Kiefer vs. Andre Agassi.
* Stadium court: Venus Williams vs. Serena Williams; Pete Sampras vs. Sebastien Grosjean.
* Stadium 2: Arnaud Clement vs. Nicolas Escude; (Not before 11:30) Nicolas Lapentti vs. Tim Henman; Patrick Rafter vs. Alex Corretja; Gustavo Kuerten vs. Jan-Michael Gambill.