Tennis: Sampras makes light of the heavy weather

Tennis: Young Swiss pretender exposes Graf's backhand flaw before tornado holds up Sampras
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PLAYERS RAN for cover yesterday as a tornado swept through the United States Open. Day turned into night in the early afternoon, and Flushing Meadow lived up to its name.

When the storm broke, Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon champion, was leading Marat Safin, an 18-year-old Russian, 6-4, 2-1, on the Stadium Court, and the American teenager Venus Williams held a 6-1, 1-0 advantage against Mary Pierce on Court No 2. Both matches were being played under floodlights.

Play resumed after two hours and five minutes (1,633 towels were used to dry the court) and Sampras mopped up Safin, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 two advance to the quarter-finals. Both players served with consistent power throughout.

Williams, the runner-up to Martina Hingis last year, advanced to the quarter-finals, 6-1, 7-6, but not before Pierce became the first opponent to break the American's serve in the tournament, achieving the feat twice to force the tie-break. The Frenchwoman led 1-4 in the shoot-out, Williams recovering to win it, 7-4.

Labor Day was taken literally by Amanda Coetzer and Conchita Martinez, whose fourth-round match started shortly after 11am and lumbered on for two hours and 38 minutes. One game in the second set lasted 28 minutes, which would have been terrific if the level of play had risen above ponderous.

Coetzer, beaten in all but one of 13 previous matches against Martinez, celebrated her second victory against the 1994 Wimbledon champion, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2. The Spaniard blamed her performance on a neck injury.

Steffi Graf, a seven-times Wimbledon champion, had already left the tournament, and her opponent, Patti Schnyder, was asked whether there is any real fear of Graf these days. The question was a reminder that 10 years have elapsed since the great German accomplished a unique "Golden Grand Slam", adding the Olympic title to a sweep of the four major championships. Graf was aged 20 at the time, Schnyder nine.

Schnyder outsmarted Graf, 6-3, 6-4, on Sunday night to advance to the quarter-finals. Snyder is only the fourth different player to beat the German at the US Open. Her next opponent is Jana Novotna, the Wimbledon champion.

The Swiss No 11 seed, who has won more WTA singles titles, five, this year than any of her rivals, considered the question of Graf's aura. She said: "I think there is a lot of respect for her, but I think fear is not the right word."

Until Sunday night, Schnyder knew Graf only by reputation. Form suggested the German was beginning to find her stride again after losing to Natasha Zvereva in the third round at Wimbledon following a year of rehabilitation from leg injuries. On the eve of the US Open, Graf defeated Lindsay Davenport and Novotna in winning a WTA Tour event in New Haven.

Graf, seeded No 8, was taken to three sets in her opening match by the American Corina Morariu, then breezed through the next two rounds in straight sets against Marlene Weingartner, a compatriot, and Mirjana Lucic, the promising Croat.

Schnyder used a simple game plan: a consistent left-handed serve kicking wide on Graf's backhand, helped by the German's errors.

So whither Graf? "When I started playing my first tournaments in England this year, I had no expectations whatsoever, and that hasn't changed very much," she said. "It has been difficult to accept that it is going to take a certain time. There are good and bad moments, but in general I've been pretty happy the way it's been going."

The elimination of Marcelo Rios, the Chilean No 2 seed, by Sweden's Magnus Larsson has opened up the lower half of the men's singles draw, and Britain's Tim Henman, the No 13 seed, now faces Mark Philippoussis for a place in the quarter-finals. Henman has played the world No 22 twice, beating him in 1996 on a concrete court in Sydney, 6-4, 6-2, in the second round, and losing in the semi-finals of last year's indoor event in Basle, 7- 6, 6-4.

Larsson plays Germany's Oliver Gross in a match that guarantees at least one unseeded quarter-finalist.