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Sampras Can Still Bring It

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rivalry supposedly long past its pull date not only withstood the test of time but hit a rarefied level as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi produced an epic at the U.S. Open, a match so memorable it was classified as a instant classic.

It started out almost reverentially before a crowded house of Arthur Ashe Stadium on a crisp Wednesday night. There was muted clapping for Sampras and subdued support for Agassi--in deference to the legend on the losing end of the point.

After almost 31/2 hours, the crowd was on its feet, delivering a standing ovation before the fourth-set tiebreaker. And, at the end, at 12:14 Thursday morning in New York, the man still standing, still contending for another U.S. Open title, was Sampras. The margin between the legends was razor thin: The 10th-seeded Sampras defeated No. 2 Agassi, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5), in 3 hours 33 minutes in the quarterfinals.

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Incredibly, neither player lost serve.

“It was awesome,” Sampras said of the standing ovation. “It really was. It was kind of a chilling moment. I thought going into this match, ‘This could be a classic.’ And I think tonight it was.”

That realization hit them as they shook hands at the net. They exchanged warm words, and Agassi leaned over to Sampras, saying: “Win this thing.”

It all came down to the tightrope of tiebreakers. Sampras has his down moment in the first one, losing it after holding three set points. His shoulders slumped, and no wonder: Agassi held a 49-1 record at the U.S. Open when he has won the first set.

The Sampras slump evaporated in the second set when he leveled the match, and seemed to turn into Jimmy Connors, the way he unleashed an emotional response, shaking his fist and waving his arms in glee. This was the 32nd meeting between Sampras and Agassi--Sampras leads the series 18-14 and had lost their last three matches. Still, they had never played more than two tiebreakers in any one of their matches, and they produced four in this one. The third tiebreaker mirrored the second, as Sampras took a big lead, winning the final five points after a disconcerting double fault.

The break-point chances were rare. Sampras had six and Agassi three. This was a natural product of fine serving. Sampras had 25 aces to Agassi’s 18. Sampras has now won 71 consecutive service games--24 were against Agassi--a streak starting in the second round.

It seemed destined to reach another tiebreaker. Agassi seemed to reestablish himself in the fourth tiebreaker, taking a 3-1 lead before Sampras shot back. Agassi’s tightest shots of the match seemed to creep into his game during the tiebreakers. Nerves hit Sampras when he blew two match points, the second by double faulting.

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“I thought, ‘I don’t know where this is going,’ and it went right in the net,” Sampras said, smiling.

He won it on his third match point when Agassi hit a forehand in the net.

Agassi was asked if he could appreciate the quality of the match. “A little too soon,” he said. “When you lose one that close, it’s difficult to appreciate much about it. It came down to the wire. How much closer can you get? It’s really disappointing. I had a hard time believing I had ever not lost my serve.

“You’ve got to do more than hold your serve, though, I guess.”

Against anyone else it would have been enough.

The crowd stayed put, for the most part. Agassi’s girlfriend Steffi Graf nervously watched from a luxury suite. Andy Roddick, who will play Lleyton Hewitt in the quarterfinals tonight, filmed the match with his video recorder. Sampras next plays Marat Safin, who beat him here in the final last year. Commentator John McEnroe immediately proclaimed the match should go straight to the Classic Network, saying: “It’s already on right now. It just started.”

The prematch buzz was intense. Soccer legend Pele was on the grounds and officials had a list of celebrities trying to get tickets. Even No. 2 Jennifer Capriati joked that she hurried up in her 6-3, 6-4 quarterfinal victory against Amelie Mauresmo of France because she knew the fans wanted to watch Agassi and Sampras.

Capriati will play defending champion Venus Williams in the semifinals Friday. Williams had little trouble in her 6-3, 6-1 win over Kim Clijsters of Belgium. For Capriati, the day had special meaning because it was nearly two years to the day where she broke down in an emotional news conference, reading a letter to the press about her rebellious youth.

“That’s exactly what I was hoping for at that time two years ago, for everything to just be forgotten,” she said. “To let go of the past.

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“That was the start of my comeback again .I wouldn’t say comeback because I’ve been back for quite a long time now. Maybe resurgence. Well, it just shows that maybe I did the right thing.”

Capriati, who has won two Slams this year and is closing in on the No. 1 ranking, had doubts.

“Even a couple of days afterward because I still got some negative criticism about it. And I wasn’t sure if I did do the right thing. Deep down, good things come to those who wait.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

U.S. OPEN

TODAY’S MEN’S QUARTERFINALS

Gustavo Kuerten (1), Brazil vs. Yevgeny Kafelnikov (7), Russia, 11 a.m.

Andy Roddick (18) vs. Lleyton Hewitt (4), Australia, 5 p.m.

*

FRIDAY’S WOMEN’S SEMIFINALS

Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland vs. Serena Williams (10)

Jennifer Capriati (2) vs. Venus Williams (4)

(Times to be announced)

At a Glance

* Wednesday’s results: Men, fourth round: No. 4 Lleyton Hewitt rallied to beat No. 16 Tommy Haas, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-2, in a match that was suspended by rain Tuesday. Quarterfinals: No. 10 Pete Sampras defeated No. 2 Andre Agassi 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5). No. 3 Marat Safin beat Mariano Zabaleta, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

Women, quarterfinals: No. 4 Venus Williams defeated No. 5 Kim Clijsters, 6-3, 6-1. No. 2 Jennifer Capriati, continuing her bid for a third Grand Slam title this year, beat No. 8 Amelie Mauresmo 6-3, 6-4.

* Today’s featured matches: Day session (doubles semifinals): Kimberly Po-Messerli and Nathalie Tauziat (4), France, vs. Sandrine Testud, France, and Roberta Vinci, Italy; (men’s quarterfinals): Gustavo Kuerten (1), Brazil, vs. Yevgeny Kafelnikov (7). Night session: (Men’s quarterfinals:) Andy Roddick (18) vs. Lleyton Hewitt (4), Australia.

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* Stat of the day: The 20 combined men’s major singles titles won by Sampras and Agassi are the most by opponents in a Grand Slam match since the 1969 U.S. Open quarterfinal between Roy Emerson and Rod Laver (22).

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