Tennis: Rapid return to No 1 spot for Sampras

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PETE SAMPRAS beat the defending champion and top seed, Andre Agassi, 7-6, 7-6, yesterday to win the Mercedes-Benz Cup in Los Angeles and underscore his return to the world No 1 spot.

Sampras blended a solid ground game with a powerful serve that produced 11 aces in the 95-minute match. It took his latest match winning streak to 17 including three titles, highlighted by a sixth Wimbledon crown, while improving his career edge to 15-10 over his longtime rival.

"Andre is so tough for me to play," Sampras said. "It's a pleasure to play against him, he brings out the best in me."

Sampras earned his 59th career title to cap a brilliant week in which the 12-time Grand Slam champion reclaimed the world No 1 ranking on the ATP Tour, unseating the Australian Patrick Rafter who barely had time to enjoy his spell at the top. Sampras will take the No 1 ranking today when begins a record 271st week on top, eclipsing the mark that Ivan Lendl held.

Sampras's 6-0, 6-2 win over the Australian qualifier James Sekulov in the semi-finals on Saturday took him back past Rafter. Andre Agassi had out-hit the unseeded and unheralded Andre Ilie, of Australia, 6-4, 6-2 in a baseline battle to reach the final.

Although Agassi has won 17 of his last 19 matches including a French Open crown, he has twice lost to Sampras, in the final at Wimbledon and here.

"It's quite an honour to be out here and compete with Pete," Agassi said. "I tell you what, the older I get the more I treasure moments like this. It's an awesome opportunity to ask for the most from yourself. I had some opportunities today, and against Pete, if you don't capitalise on them, it turns quick. It's truly a privilege playing this kind of tennis."

The two traded power from the baseline and high-speed serves throughout the high-quality match in front of the sun-drenched, sell-out crowd on the UCLA Stadium Court.

In the first tie-break, Sampras managed a mini-service break in the third point when he smacked a wicked forehand service return en route to a 4- 1 advantage. Sampras's lead was cut to 4-3 but he won the final three points, taking the set when Agassi's cross-court backhand sailed wide.

Agassi cranked up his serve in the second set but Sampras was ready for the challenge and another tie-break after neither was able to break service. Sampras dominated the tie-break, and closed out the victory with a running forehand that Agassi volleyed into the net.

Power proved the key as Lindsay Davenport defeated Venus Williams in the final of the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, California, for the second successive year, this time 7-6, 6-2.

Davenport, who has won eight of her nine matches against Williams, said after the semi-finals that Davenport had won most of their previous matches by being a smarter player. Yesterday, however, Davenport also proved to be the tougher player on the big points.

Results, Digest, page 9