Tennis: Sampras prospers from a bad fall

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The Independent Online
UNTIL THE third game of the second set, the signature sound of the quarter-final on Centre Court yesterday had been the eerie tungsten crack of the ball leaving Mark Philippoussis's racket and flying across the net for another ace. Then came a sound that only he could hear. A click inside his left knee. A minute later, he heard it again. And when he heard it a third time, he knew the game was up.

In his engagingly courteous way, Pete Sampras made no bones about his good fortune. "There's no question he was outplaying me," the No 1 seed said, reflecting on qualifying for the semi-final after Philippoussis had retired at 1-2 in the second set, having taken the first 6-4. "I can't sit here and feel good about it. It's kind of a mixed emotion. I'm glad I'm playing tomorrow, but I feel bad for Mark, because he was playing well enough to win here."

That's what Philippoussis thought, too, At 6ft 4in and 14 stone-plus, the Australian is built to batter his opponents into submission and he had done exactly that to Sampras in the opening set. But at 1-1 in the second, with Sampras serving at deuce, Philippoussis went for a backhand passing shot and fell awkwardly.

"I felt like I landed okay," he said, "but I heard a click, and I grabbed it." Then Sampras served again. "When I jumped forward to split-step, my knee just gave way and I heard a huge click, and then again on the second serve I split-stepped to hit a forehand and I heard a big click again, and I knew right there."

He requested a medical time-out and stretched out on the grass while a doctor massaged and manipulated the joint. Any way he turned it, the knee hurt. After five minutes Philippoussis got to his feet and walked stiffly over to Sampras, who had been standing under the royal box, trying to keep loose. Philippoussis extended his hand, and it was all over.

Philippoussis had made the most of Sampras's disastrous start to the match. The American began by serving three double-faults to lose the opening game. His opponent, by contrast, was on his game straight away, the only threat to his progress in the first set coming in the sixth game, when Sampras failed to convert four set points.

Aces finished off six of the set's 10 games, with Sampras reeling off three in a row to reach 2-1. This was a fair summary of the tennis being served up and there were only two rallies of any note. The first came in the eighth game, when Sampras's lacerating return brought an obliquely angled stop-volley from Philippoussis, who could only stand and watch in amazement as the American flew across the court to deliver an impossible winner with a follow-through that took him several yards past the umpire's chair. The second, in the subsequent game, involved Philippoussis returning a Sampras overhead by going down on his knees on the baseline to play a vicious short-arm smash, only to see the ball put away with a perfect stop-volley.

But these moments of grace and virtuosity were rare, and it was more common to see the ball flying off the rim of the receiver's racket in the direction of third man. On the day Philippoussis was proving the more adept at this kind of brusque, brutal tennis, and it was hard to see by what means Sampras would be able to fight his way back into contention.

The No 1 seed had been inactive since his fourth-round match against Daniel Nestor on Monday. "That showed a little bit," he said. "I feel like I'm pretty fortunate to be alive in this tournament. It was a strange, strange kind of day. One minute you're kind of holding on, and the next minute he can't go on any more, and he was obviously very upset by it."

The problem looked like a snapped anterior cruciate ligament, the skier's favourite injury, but the doctor could give Philippoussis no immediate diagnosis and sent him off for an MRI scan. He had never had a knee problem before, he said.

Philippoussis was painfully aware that he had been in with a great chance of beating the four-times champion for the first time in their three meetings on grass and of going one step further than he had ever been at Wimbledon. "I felt like I was hitting the ball well, I managed to hold off some break points and I was enjoying the match," he said. "I'm disappointed. But I'm not dying or anything. There's plenty of worse things that can happen."

Now Sampras moves on to meet Tim Henman, his friend and golf partner, over whom he holds a 5-0 advantage in head-to-heads, his most recent victory being that torrid final at Queen's last month. "I know his game very well, and he knows my game very well," Sampras observed. "He's playing well, I'm playing okay. The crowd's going to be behind him, which won't be easy, but I've been in this situation before. I hope I can get off to a better start than today."

Their friendship, he said, would have no bearing on the contest. "We just go out and play, and lay it on the line, and the better man wins. He knows that he played well enough to beat me at Queen's, but he got a little unlucky. When it's as close as we've been playing, I don't know how much of an edge I have. Like I said last year, it's just a matter of time before Tim breaks through. Hopefully it won't happen this year."

Sampras will be 28 next month. He has been winning Grand Slam tournaments since 1990. This has been his decade. But his struggle to match the 22- year-old Philippoussis encouraged the thought that if Henman is ever going to beat him at anything but golf, today just might be the day.