Tennis: Sampras breaks his title drought

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The Independent Online
PETE SAMPRAS'S attempt to become the first player to finish No 1 in the world rankings for six successive years regained important momentum yesterday when he beat Karol Kucera, of Slovakia, in straightsets to win the CA Trophy. Tim Henman does not need to know that Sampras did so without playing anything like as well as he had in destroying the British No 1 at the quarter-final stage.

With Pat Rafter and Marcelo Rios threatening his position, Sampras only entered this tournament at the last minute, courtesy of a wild card that was destined for Boris Becker. If Sampras had done well in Basel the week before last he probably could have given Vienna a miss. But he was knocked out in the first round and was suddenly left short of points. Becker - now an elder statesman figure in semi-retirement - was happy to let his old rival take his place.

Asked if he would be sharing his $125,400 (pounds 76,495) prize-money with Becker, Sampras smiled and said: "Now that's where I draw the line."

Even if he had lost to Kucera, Sampras was guaranteed to stay at No 1 for at least the next two weeks. But the extra points could prove vital, and it clearly meant a lot to Sampras to lift a trophy again after a title- less run that stretched back to Wimbledon. He still cannot afford to let up, and his schedule for this time of year - five successive indoor tournaments - is one he has never before endured. "It's a long road," he said.

In winning 6-3, 7-6, 6-1 in two hours, seven minutes, Sampras rarely hit top form. His groundstrokes were often loose, and, except when they really mattered, opportunities few. At the key moment - the second set tie-break - Sampras burst from Kucera's grasp at 3-3 and wrapped up the set with a searing forehand down the line followed by an ace.

Kucera, who had been commuting to the tournament from his home in Bratislava, is coached by the great Miloslav Mecir, and his speed and anticipation, if not quite his touch, are reminiscent of him. An outstanding 1998 has lifted him to No 7 in the rankings and Sampras - who he beat at this year's Australian Open - thinks he can go further.

Kucera reached the final after beating the British No 2, Greg Rusedski, who has admitted he needs to keep a lid on his fiery temper.

Rusedski showed flashes of anger as he lost 7-6, 6-4 on Saturday after throwing away a 4-1 lead in the first set. Rusedski, who threw his racket to the ground in anger during the second set, failed to match his performance of last year when he lost in the final.

"I need to be calmer and deal with certain situations more peaceably," he said.

n Lindsay Davenport confirmed her status as world No 1 with victory over Venus Williams in the European Championships final in Zurich.

The 22-year-old top seed, successfully defended her title with a 7-5, 6-3 victory in an all-American final.

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