Tennis: Courier keeps Sampras waiting: World No 1 achieves 10th victory over American compatriot while Belarussian fears the inevitable

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PETE SAMPRAS defeated Jim Courier for the 10th time to advance to the final of the Lipton Championships here yesterday. Errors on both sides made the match one of the least impressive of the 12 between the American compatriots.

The defending champion needed six set points to take the first set and required three match points in a second set tie-break to clinch the win, 6-4, 7-6, in almost two hours. Though Courier will take much of the credit for prolonging the contest, he missed opportunities to detain Sampras further.

It was their second match since last July's Wimbledon final, and Courier at least looked more competitive than when losing to Sampras in straight sets in the semi-finals of the Australian Open two months ago. Unfortunately, his confidence deserted him at crucial moments.

Courier created three set points in the tie-break, having retrieved a 2-4 deficit. He missed the first at 6-5, netting a forehand after Sampras had gifted him a playable second serve. Another forehand error, steered wide, was costly at 7-6, and Sampras was not so generous with his serve at 9-10, giving Courier little option but to net a backhand return.

Sampras meantime had seen two match points elude him. He was passed after failing to put away a backhand volley at 8-7, and netted a backhand service return at 8-9. Courier, serving to save the third match point at 10-12, deposited a forehand approach into the net.

'The tie-break could have gone either way, and I came out a bit lucky,' Sampras said. 'If he could have got that second set the outcome probably would have been different.'

Though the players agreed that neither had performed particularly well, the point which resolved the opening set went some way to making amends for the number of mistakes. Sampras, who failed to put away five set points when serving at 5-4, broke Courier in the next game with a backhand volley on the 38th stroke of a rally.

Natalia Zvereva, at a glance, could be mistaken for Steffi Graf, from the ponytail to the athletic stride. The similarity ends as soon as play begins, particularly if Graf is on the other side of the net.

The first time they met was in the final of the 1988 French Open. Graf won, 6-0, 6-0, in 32 minutes, the shortest officially timed Grand Slam final. Going into today's final Graf leads the head-to-head series 13-0.

It is not just the tennis strokes - especially Graf's mighty forehand - that tells them apart, but attitude as well. Graf's quest for perfection sustains her even in the absence of Monica Seles, her only serious rival. Zvereva sometimes gives the impression that she is content to be No 14 in the singles rankings while acquiring an impressive list of Grand Slam doubles titles in partnership with Gigi Fernandez.

Asked if she considered Graf to be beatable, the 22-year-old from Minsk did not exactly raise everybody's expectation of a major upset. 'I doubt it at the moment,' she said. Defeatist, perhaps, but also realistic. Graf has not been beaten for 31 matches and has not lost a set in her 27 matches this year.

(Photograph omitted)