Tennis: Sampras gets back into the groove

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The Independent Online
PETE SAMPRAS moved one victory away from regaining the world No 1 ranking after overcoming the big-serving Swede Magnus Larsson 7-5, 2-6, 6-1 for a place in the ATP Champion-ship final in Cincinnati.

But the Wimbledon champion was given a tough time by Larsson and dropped his first set of the tournament before setting up a showdown with the US Open champion, Patrick Rafter, in the final, which was to be played late last night. Sampras will have needed to defend his title successfully against the Australian to take back the top spot from Marcelo Rios when the new rankings are released today.

Sampras will have started favourite as he has beaten Rafter eight times and suffered his only loss against the Australian as far back as 1993.

The Chilean Rios snatched the top ranking away last Monday, but promptly lost his first match this week to put his position in danger. Larsson had beaten Sampras in their last three meetings, including the Davis Cup final last winter.

"He's got a devastating serve. It's like it's coming down from a crane," said Sampras. "He beat me three times last year and he steamrolled me in the second set. But I got that early break in the third and he seemed to give up a bit."

Rafter is coming into form at just the right time with the defence of his Open crown in New York just a fortnight away.

The third-ranked Australian reached his second final in as many weeks by beating Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov 7-5, 6-0 for his ninth singles victory in a row.

"This is my best effort so far, nine straight winning matches," he said. "The whole game's come together. I'm serving well, volleying pretty well, hitting my groundstrokes OK." But Rafter admits that he faces a hard task to repeat his 1997 success at Flushing Meadow.

Martina Hingis put herself in a good position to win her first WTA Tour title in three months by beating Spain's Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 6-4, 6-4 in the semi-finals of the Manhattan Beach event in California.

The second seed, Lindsay Daven-port, brushed aside American compatriot and fourth seed Monica Seles 6-4 6-2 to book a meeting with the 17-year- old Swiss.

Hingis last won a tournament in May and is gearing up to defend her US Open title at the end of this month.