Tennis: Sampras rustiness exposed by Agassi

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THERE WAS not as much excitement and colour as anticipated in yesterday's round- robin match between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras at the ATP Tour Championship here, partly because Agassi was playing with the confidence of a world No 1, but chiefly because Sampras lacked the match toughness for such a challenge, having only played twice since August.

A bonus of the league format, where two groups of four players each play three matches, is that early losers can end the weekend as winners, so it is possible that Agassi and Sampras will meet again in Sunday's five- set final.

If that transpires, it is to be hoped that Sampras's game will have grown sharper than it was yesterday, when Agassi won, 6-2, 6-2, in 59 minutes.

It was Agassi's first victory against his American compatriot in four meetings this year, including Sampras's dazzling performance in the Wimbledon final in July. But Agassi sensibly played down yesterday's success, saying: "On my best day I couldn't beat Pete 6-2, 6-2 if he was playing what he's capable of. I could play great, and could have everything go well for me, and I'm not going to beat him 2 and 2. He's only had two matches in the last three months."

Agassi, who has won two round-robin matches without conceding a set, needs to defeat the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten to guarantee his place in Saturday's semi-finals. Sampras, who defeated Kuerten in straight sets in his opening match, must overcome Nicolas Lapentti, of Ecuador, to have a chance of progressing.

It would not surprise Agassi to see Sampras in the final. "The guy can improve like nobody," he said. "He was like Lazarus at Wimbledon, just out of nowhere. Completely when you thought that he wasn't really the same Pete, he plays tennis that he's never played before. So I have no doubt what he's capable of."

Sampras, starting as impressively as he had finished against Kuerten the previous day, created the first three opportunities of the match against Agassi but was unable to convert any of them. At 30-30 in the second game, Agassi let a Sampras backhand pass him by, believing the ball would land long. When a line judge ruled that the ball brushed the baseline, Agassi's protests were unheeded. The incident was forgotten after Sampras netted a backhand on the break point.

Then, leading 2-1, Sampras won a rally with a backhand down the line for 15-40. Agassi saved both break points impressively, the first with a backhand winner down the line, the second with a serve and forehand volley.

Immediately after that, Agassi began to take control of the contest, helped by his opponent's double faults. Sampras had already saved two break points at 2-2 when he double-faulted for the second time in the game.

Lost in thought about retrieving the situation, Sampras draped his towel over the courtside poinsettias, prompting groans of disapproval from spectators. Sampras went back and removed the towel from the plants. Agassi, noticing that he, too, had left his towel over the poinsettias, followed Sampras's example.

Agassi promptly created a third break point with a forehand return down the line, and Sampras double-faulted again. Before long, Sampras was less concerned about poinsettias than set points. He was broken a second time for 2-5, have broken his racket frame smashing the ball on the opening point, and Agassi served the set out after 33 minutes.

Sampras's serve was under threat throughout the second set in all but the opening game, whereas Agassi was serving solidly and picking holes in his opponent's less than devastating deliveries. As in the first set, Sampras was broken for 2-3, hitting a backhand long, and again for 2-5, netting a forehand volley off an Agassi return.

Agassi served the match out to love with a forehand drive to the baseline, and bowed and blew kisses to the crowd in his customary fashion while his friend Steffi Graf was being escorted by security staff from her courtside box to comparative privacy backstage.

Sampras picked up his rackets and walked, hoping for better times ahead. "I'm disappointed the way it went today," he said. "Andre played about as well as he's played against me in quite a while. It's safe to say I was a touch rusty, but I think Andre had a lot to do with that. He returned my serve unbelievably well. I don't have long to be disappointed. It's time to get back up to playing on Friday. I'm optimistic. I got through without hurting myself, which is always a good sign."

Nicolas Kiefer, a local boy who was making his debut at the ATP Tour Championship, was unable to open with a win against Thomas Enqvist in the White Group. Enqvist prevailed, 6-4, 7-5.

Results, Digest, page 31