Tennis: Muscle strain sends Sampras limping home

US Open tennis: Injury denies Californian's attempt to match Grand Slam record as Rafter proceeds to final
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The Independent Online
IT WAS a painful way to ensure that an Australian would win the United States Open men's singles title, keeping a compatriot's record intact (Roy Emerson's 12 Grand Slams), and guaranteeing that the season would end with eight different Grand Slam champions.

Injury handicapped Pete Sampras from the third set of his semi-final against Pat Rafter, the defending champion, on Saturday night, the Queenslander going on to win, 6-7, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, to keep an appointing with Melbourne's Mark Philippoussis in the final.

It is not the first time Sampras's elegant style has been cramped in a major championship, making it even more remarkable that he has won 11 Grand Slams. Unlike Mark McGwire, baseball's Mister 62, Sampras was unable to deliver a magical number for the tennis public. He will try to equal Emerson's record at the Australian Open next January, which would lead to a tantalising challenge for No 13 at the French Open or Wimbledon.

This time a strained muscle high in left thigh reduced Sampras to a limping victim of Rafter's exciting attacking style. Spectators may have wondered if the Californian had retired when he left the court when leading, 5- 2, in the third set. It transpired that the position of the injury meant that he would have to remove his shorts for treatment. The referee's room provided refuge.

Sampras returned to secure a two sets to one lead, but it was soon evident that his tournament was as good as finished. "The adrenaline was the only thing that kept me going," Sampras said. "It was just bad luck."

Having edged the first set tie-break, 10-8, Sampras was unable to fend Rafter off in the second set, after which the match seemed to be boiling nicely. Then it happened. "He hit a backhand volley at 4-2 in the third, and I landed on my left leg and basically pulled my quad," Sampras said. "It shocked me a little bit, and then I wasn't sure I was going to be able to continue to play," the Wimbledon champion added. "Anytime I put any mount of serious weight on my left side, it was giving me problems. Things were going pretty well till that point. Patrick played well. I played a solid match. But then I was struggling out there."

Although Sampras keeps his place as the world No 1, his reign is under threat again as he wonders if he will be fit to beat off his rivals as he tries to end the season as the top man for a sixth consecutive year.

"As hard as I am on myself in putting so much emphasis on these major championships, I felt like I had a good opportunity to win here," he said. "Anytime you win Wimbledon, which in my mind is the biggest one we have, you can't complain about the year. But it's disappointing to lose here. When you lose Slams, you always have something to look forward to, but the US Open is the last one of the year. Now I've got to find some sort of motivation to go over to Europe [for the indoor season] and deal with that situation."

"To me, it's one of those hard luck stories for Pete." Rafter said. "But I'm very happy to take a win against Pete any way I can get it."

THE TROUBLE WITH PETE

SAMPRAS'S

PHYSICAL PROBLEMS

1992 United States Open: defeats Jim Couries in the semi-finals, and comes down with diarrhoea after the match. Loses to Stefan Edberg in the final.

1994 US Open: loses to Jaime Yzaga in the fourth round, cramping badly.

1994 Lipton Championships: food poisoning before the final against Andre Agassi. Agassi agrees to allow him an hour and half of extra time to take intravenous fluids, and Sampras wins.

1995 Davis Cup Final in Moscow: collapses with cramp, but recovers to win in five sets against Andrei Chesnokov.

1996 US Open: Dehydrated, vomits on court during a fifth set tie-break against Alex Corretja in the quarter-finals. Goes on to win the title.

1997 Davis Cup in Gothenburg: pulls a calf muscle and retires against Magnus Larsson. Sweden win, 5-0.

1998 US Open: strains thigh muscle during the third set of the semi-final against Pat Rafter. Loses in five sets.

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