Bruguera wears down Sampras: Tennis

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The Independent Online
He may be only the sixth ranked Spaniard these days, overshadowed by talented countrymen, but Sergi Bruguera wore down Pete Sampras, the world No 1, at the Lipton Championships yesterday and advanced to tomorrow'sfinal, 5-7, 7-6, 6-4.

Roared on by Hispanic supporters in the crowd, and managing to calm himself after several dubious overrules by the umpire, Bruguera capitalised on Sampras's rather lethargic performance. "I just played a bad match," Sampras said. ``Sergi is a good player but on hard court it's a match I should win nine times out of 10.''

It was only the second time Sampras had lost in 22 matches this year - although he was eliminated by the Czech Bohdan Ulihrach in the opening round of his last tournament, at Indian Wells, California - and one of his most telling responses was a defiant gesture towards the vociferous Spanish quarter after breaking back for 3-3 in the final set.

The American's respite was short-lived, and shouts of "Sergi! Sergi!" filled the stadium after the former French Open champion broke for 4-3 in the next game and went on to complete his victory after two hours and seven minutes. The final shot - a tame netted backhand return of a second serve - summarised Sampras's display in the later stages. "Mentally I didn't have it today," he said. Bruguera will play Thomas Muster or Jim Courier in the final.

When Monica Seles first began to startle the sporting world, grunting and driving opponents into the ground, she was asked if success was likely to change her. "No," she replied, "I'll just be the same little old me". Fate - specifically a knife-wielding Steffi Graf fanatic - decided otherwise.

Win or lose against Martina Hingis today in the women's singles final, Seles will see one of her records eclipsed by the Swiss teenager. On Monday, Hingis will overtake Steffi Graf in the rankings and become the youngest ever world No 1, aged 16 years, six months and one day. Seles was 17 years, three months and nine days on 11 March, 1991, when breaking the previous record set by Tracy Austin in 1980.

At 23, Seles is endeavouring to restore her game to something approaching its former glory after a series of injuries followed her successful comeback in 1995. She also has to cope with the emotional trauma of her father/coach Karolj's battle against cancer.

The Lipton is Seles's first tournament since her latest injury, a broken finger, caused, she says, when she caught a ball served by Martina Hingis as they warmed up for an exhibition match in Geneva on 2 December. "A great birthday present," Seles said.

Hingis is unbeaten in 25 consecutive matches this year, a run which has yielded four titles, including the Australian Open. She won her only previous WTA Tour match against Seles, 6-2, 6-0, in Oakland, California, last November - making only five unforced errors. "She creamed me - whatever word you would use - on the court that day," Seles said. "What is so scary about her is that she only gets better.''

Seles, currently ranked No 5, expects Hingis to remain at No 1 "safely through the US Open" [in September] at least. "Steffi has to defend a lot of points, and Martina doesn't, so she's going to gain a lot of points. She's playing a lot more tournaments than Steffi. I'm not sure how open the No 1 spot will be till pretty much the end of the year.''

Asked how special it would be to level the score against Hingis today, she said, "Each time I go out there I don't like to think of the past match, whether I won or lost, because it's a new match, new surroundings, all those things.

"I think it's a very special match for Martina, but in my mind that will not make a difference. When I became No 1 I played Martina Navratilova in the finals, and it didn't really make a difference. Of course, I had to beat Navratilova to be No 1 that week, which for Martina [Hingis] is not the case. She's No 1 no matter what. She's the youngest No 1 ever,and that's great, an unbelievable achievement. I'm sure she'd like to have another title, like all of us.''

Although Seles has appeared to lack fitness and timing during several of her matches this week, she swept past Germany's Barbara Paulus with ease in the semi-finals on Thursday night, 6-1, 6-0. "I think I took control a little bit more than in the sets before,"shesaid.

"I really wanted to do that today. I just said to myself, `Go out there and play your game, don't have any long points'. That was my goal." It worked a treat.

Hingis, while believing herself to be the best player in the world, is not one to underestimate opponents. Asked to rate the pace of her rivals, she said, "I think Monica hits it very hard, if she's in good shape. Steffi for sure, from her forehand. Mary Pierce hits it very hard, too. But I think Monica is the toughest player.''