Tennis: Sampras and Davenport threaten repeat action

The dream of an American clean sweep in the US Open might well become reality.
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The Independent Online
NOTWITHSTANDING THE cold statistic that Grand Slam titles are shared around among different athletes, men and women, almost as a matter of routine these days, those lovely folk who bring us the US Open will be hoping for some repeat action when the tournament gets under way tomorrow. A rerun of Wimbledon, which saw the American No 1s, Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport, walk off with the singles honours would be most acceptable. Nor would anyone at Flushing Meadows quibble if Andre Agassi and Venus Williams hoisted the trophies. Just so long as they're from the US of A, preferably native-born.

The pages of this great event need to be turned back 17 years, to 1982, before we come up with the names of those former sweethearts Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert, inscribed as singles champions and able to flaunt a US birth certificate, unlike those of Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles.

In the men's competition, Sampras is the one in hot form, so consistent that it is "scary" in the opinion of the defending champion, Patrick Rafter. Having awarded himself a 10-week holiday in celebration of clocking up six straight years as world No 1, Sampras encountered considerable trouble applying racket to ball with any degree of success when he went back to work. Indeed, he arrived in London for the grass-court season without a tournament victory to his name in 1999. Then came lift-off, with wins at Queen's and Wimbledon, followed by two more in Los Angeles and Cincinnati. Sampras ran his winning streak to 24 matches before a hip strain forced a default in Indianapolis 10 days ago.

That problem cleared, Sampras is eager to go for a fifth US Open title, and there is no reason why he should not land it. He is fresh, having played only 11 events in the year's first eight months, and he most certainly has the motivation: to become, as our cousins over the water might say, the winningest champion in Grand Slam history. Victory here would be his 13th major, edging him in front of the man with whom he is at present bracketed as all-time best, the Australian Roy Emerson. Sampras has been handed an early test by the draw, since he opens against the Russian 19- year-old Marat Safin, ranked 33 in the world. But if he survives that one the sailing looks plain as can be until the second week.

At the opposite end of the draw is positioned that other American success story of the season, Andre Agassi. A winner at the French Open and runner- up to Sampras at Wimbledon, the 29-year-old Las Vegan is finally offering Sampras what has been mooted for years but never quite gelled, a true rivalry. A bit late, but still welcome. If Agassi, who has won in New York once - back in 1994 - can make it twice, the locals would rejoice. In that part of the States, they know better than most a class act when they see one.

Those best positioned to disrupt such a dream rerun of Wimbledon seem to be Rafter, in Sampras's half of the draw, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, in Agassi's. Rafter is bidding to become the first to win three successive US Opens since Lendl in 1985-87, but is carrying a shoulder injury which restricts his serving, the penalty of too much tennis. There is no more rugged competitor than the 26-year-old Australian and, if they can't have Sampras or Agassi as their champion, New Yorkers have already demonstrated their partiality to Rafter.

As for Kafelnikov, he is about due a good US Open, having played in only four previously and never having got past the fourth round. A repeat of his all-court skills at the Australian Open this year, where he benefited from the absence of Sampras to capture his second Grand Slam, could mean significant progress for the Russian. Certainly, he has been playing well in North America in recent weeks.

The British hopes, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, have been handed a friendly draw and they will need it. Henman's form since getting to the Wimbledon semi-finals has been, to put it charitably, patchy ("I need to work on my consistency," he admits), while Rusedski's two-month absence with a foot injury has left him short, probably too short, of match toughness. He is also, alas, in Sampras's quarter of the draw.

Since Steffi Graf has opted to quit the stage before the band strikes up, the glare in the women's event will be directed at Martina Hingis. The girl who seemed so assured and mature in dominating the game at 16 is now, on the brink of her 19th birthday, encountering problems with those qualities following her tantrums in the French Open final and her abject exit from Wimbledon's first round. However, the signs of recovery are promising. She is back at No 1, after a brief surrender of that honour to Davenport, and has won two of her last three tournaments.

Davenport, while not in the all-conquering form of 1998 on North American hard courts, has to be the favourite to repeat her success of 12 months ago, particularly since the one fragility in her make-up, confidence, has been enormously boosted by winning Wimbledon. It is also to Davenport's advantage that the dangerous third seed, Venus Williams, is barring Hingis's path to the final, since the Swiss finds that raw power hard to handle. Venus was a surprise - and popular - finalist in New York two years ago, since when she has improved beyond measure. Her father, Richard, from whom she has inherited boundless self-assurance, may even be looking for a repeat of that all-Williams final at Key Biscayne in March, since sister Serena is in the opposite side of the draw and hitting a mean ball right now.

Once again, the women's event looks the more attractive, with the Australian Open surprise, Amelie Mauresmo, now fit again and those bright young things, Jelena Dokic and Alexandra Stevenson, keen to show their Wimbledon form was no fluke. Dokic, in particular, will have another early giant- killing chance since her first match is against the 10th seed and 1994 champion, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. After that it could be Hingis again in the fourth round.

Rafter interview, page 14