Tennis: Sampras makes a sprint start

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THE ATP TOUR Championship continued yesterday where it left off a year ago, with Pete Sampras dispatching Yevgeny Kafelnikov in straight sets.

Their last match, 12 months ago, was in the final. Kafelnikov, undeterred after losing yesterday's opening round-robin contest, 6-2, 6-4, boldly predicted a reunion with the world No 1 next Sunday.

"I'm almost 100 per cent certain that I'm going to play in the final against Sampras," the Russian said, promising to stay on course by winning his next two matches, against Carlos Moya and Karol Kucera.

Sampras smiled benignly when told Kafelnikov's scenario. "I'm not looking that far ahead," he said. "Yevgeny, I'm sure, has planned out the whole draw at this point. I'm concerned about my match tomorrow. For him to say, `I'm in the final', is a bit... put it this way, I wouldn't say something like that."

Far-fetched though another Sampras-Kafelnikov final seems on the evidence of yesterday's performance, slow starts sometimes lead to sprint finishes. Sampras needs no reminding that he opened last year's tournament by losing to Moya in the round-robin.

With a record sixth year-end world No 1 ranking at stake this time, Sampras was keen to avoid a sluggish start. For a set and a half it was obvious that Sampras had grooved his serve while preparing for Hanover on outdoor hard courts in California. Kafelnikov, however, appeared to have dumped his serve in the Black Sea. The Russian double-faulted eight times to find himself a set and a break down after only 28 minutes, having taken only two points off Sampras's serve.

"When you get that first break, everything just kind of relaxes you," Sampras said. "It was important to get off to a good start, and I did that. But I definitely had a lot of work to do in the second set."

Six match points were evidence of that, Kafelnikov having come to life after being given a code violation for verbally abusing the German umpire, Rudi Berger, after a close call erased his first break point at 1-2 in the second set.

The Russian did break, to love, for 3-3, only to suffer Sampras's brilliance in the next game, his smash being returned across the court as the American broke again for 4-3. After holding for 5-3, the job was waiting to be finished.

Kafelnikov hit a ninth double-fault on a game point in the ninth game. After subsequently overhitting a backhand to offer Sampras his first match point, the Russian swept it away with a solid second serve and held for 5-4.

Sampras saw a second match point disappear when Kafelnikov passed him with a forehand, and the American contrived to double-fault for the only time in the match to lose his third opportunity.

When Kafelnikov drove through a fourth match point and then created a break point, the crowd began to prepare for the possibility of a third set. Sampras disappointed them by whisking away Kafelnikov's advantage with a second serve. The Russian returned well enough to save the fifth match point, but could only net a backhand on the sixth.

The spectators, denied a lengthy duel in the opening match, were able to play a full part in the second round-robin, cheering and stamping their feet as Moya recovered from a set down to defeat Kucera, 6-7, 7-5, 6-3, after two hours and 28 minutes.

Moya, who lost to Kafelnikov in the semi-finals last year after upsetting Sampras in his opening round-robin, arrived in the Expo 2000 Tennis Dome yesterday having lost all five of his previous indoor matches this year.

Slow clay courts are Moya's forte, as he demonstrated by winning the French Open in Paris in June after taking his first ATP Tour Super 9 title in Monte Carlo in April.

Moya is due to play Sampras in his second match in Red Group today - and Andre Agassi is scheduled to open against Alex Corretja in White Group, provided the American feels no further spasms from his suspect back.

TODAY'S ORDER OF PLAY (from 1pm GMT): A Agassi (US) v A Corretja (Sp); P Sampras (US) v C Moya (Sp); K Kucera (Slovak) v Y Kafelnikov (Rus).