Tennis: Ivanisevic's relish for the rally erodes Sampras' resistance

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The Independent Online
JIM COURIER and Goran Ivanisevic will dispute the final of the Italian Open here today, an intriguing contest between the United States and Europe. In the semi-finals yesterday, Courier, the defending champion, was too strong for his compatriot, Michael Chang, and Ivanisevic prevented an all-American final by defeating Pete Sampras, the world No 1.

Chang did well to take Courier, the world No 2, into a third set before slumping, 6-2, 6-7, 6-0, after two hours and 55 minutes. He had been on court beyond midnight on Friday, outlasting the Russian Andrei Chesnokov in three sets, saving two match points before winning on his third after three hours and 37 minutes.

Though Courier had defeated Chang in straight sets in their previous five matches, this was their first meeting on clay. He knew his opponent well enough not to be surprised by his tenacity in the tie- break, which Chang won 7-2. The sixth seed was drained by the effort.

In tennis, all roads lead to Wimbledon, and the semi-final between Ivanisevic and Sampras was tailored for the lawns of the All England Club, which was where they last met.

The fortunes of the players have changed considerably since Ivanisevic's four-set win against Sampras and subsequent defeat by Andre Agassi in the Wimbledon final. Sampras went into yesterday's contest as the world No 1, Ivanisevic as a player simply delighted to be stringing wins together again after four months struggling against injuries.

None of this was obvious as the left-handed Ivanisevic won, 7-6, 6-2, dealing with the American as efficiently in their first match on the slower surface as he had in three out of four matches on faster courts. Even on clay, the fourth-seeded Ivanisevic was able to make his potent serve count against an opponent who is also accustomed to winning a large portion of free points.

Ivanisevic also demonstrated that when his concentration holds he has a strong rallying game to complement his big serve, and Sampras became dispirited when faced with the combined elements of the Croat's style.

Though the American was able to recover a service break in the opening set, his form slumped badly after he lost the tie-break, 7-4, after 49 minutes. He directed a low backhand volley wide for 4-5, leaving his opponent with two serves for the set. The first was an ace, one of 13 from Ivanisevic, and Sampras was then lured into dumping a forehand into the net.

The second set was completed in 26 minutes, Sampras scarcely putting two shots together after losing the first three games. This must have been worrying for the American with the French Open only eight days away.

Ivanisevic, who declared before the match that he believed he was playing well enough to beat anybody and win the tournament, was not surprised by his victory against the top man. 'Sampras can't play left-handers - especially me,' he said. 'I can make it hard for him playing my forehand on his backhand. I've now beaten him on every surface.'

Well, almost. Sampras defeated Ivanisevic on a carpet court at the 1991 Paris Indoor tournament.

ITALIAN MEN'S OPEN (Rome) Semi-finals: G Ivanisevic (Croa) bt P Sampras (US) 7-6 6-2; J Courier (US) bt M Chang (US) 6-2 6-7 6-0.