Tennis: Sampras wins friends through his frailties: Fitness doubts over world No 1 after latest injury robs him of stamina in surprise defeat at the US Open

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The Independent Online
IT WAS going to take more than turbo-tennis to endear Pete Sampras to a community besotted with the extremes of Connors and McEnroe. Something of a Greek tragedy played out at the United States Open appears to have done wonders for the world No 1's popularity.

Staggering around the court, still contriving to produce winning shots in a fifth set when his aching body was begging his mind to call a halt, the Wimbledon champion won friends while losing a title. Sweet Pete suddenly became suffering Sampras, a far more sympathetic character.

George Vecsey, a New York Times columnist, summarised the changing perception thus: 'Sampras has sometimes seemed too good, too bland, for the mob in the Stadium, but yesterday the crowd loved him for his frailty.'

The concern now is that Sampras's physical fallibility will become a drain on one of the finest talents the sport has produced.

At the outset of the tournament, most observers considered that Sampras was more likely to be denied his third Grand Slam title of the year by the effects of an injury to his left ankle than by the play of his rivals. It transpired that though the ankle withstood the rigours of four matches, the six weeks of inactivity spent nursing the injury had robbed him of stamina.

Jaime Yzaga, a 26-year-old baseliner from Peru, took advantage, forcing Sampras to play longer points and wearying him to the point of exhaustion. Yzaga, ranked No 23, advanced to his first Grand Slam quarter-final, winning, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6, 7-5.

Were this an isolated example of ailments afflicting Sampras there would be little cause for alarm, but he has something of a medical history. Shin splints have troubled him since he won the Grand Slam Cup towards the end of 1990; food poisoning restricted his challenge to Stefan Edberg in the US Open final two years ago and almost caused him to withdraw from the Lipton final he won against Andre Agassi in March; and a shoulder injury nearly cost him his first Wimbledon title in last year's final against Jim Courier.

Sampras's inclination is to leave his rackets alone 'for the next four months', though he intends to consider forthcoming obligations.

However, American prospects of success linger with the ninth-seeded Todd Martin becoming the first man through the the semi-finals with a 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 win against Bernd Karbacher, of Germany.

Michael Stich, the highest remaining seed (4), rid himself of the torpor which trailed him to the previous Grand Slams this year and advanced - smiling - to the quarter-finals with a 7-6, 6-3, 6-2 win against Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the 14th seed from Russia. The 1991 Wimbledon champion plays the unseeded Jonas Bjorkman, of Sweden.

The women continue to await roars of approval, which, with luck, will be abundant during the semi-finals, in which Jana Novotna will have an opportunity to make amends for her collapse against Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final.

In the quarter-finals, the seven-seeded Novotna swatted Mary Pierce, the fourth seed, 6-4, 6-0. Graf swept into the last four with a 6-0, 6-2, win against Amanda Coetzer, the 11th seed from South Africa.

Imagine Court One at Wimbledon featuring a second-round junior girls' singles match on the second Wednesday. The equivalent happened here: Martina Hingis, 13, versus Anna Kournikova, 12, Hingis, the top seed, who is due to make her professional debut in Zurich next month, won, 6-0, 6-0.

There would have been more action off the courts had not the Grand Slams lived up to their name by crushing a plan to create a breakaway women's tour hatched by Mark McCormack's International Managment Group, with Billie Jean King to the fore.

Reminded that the Grand Slams had a three-year contract with the WTA Tour and would not recognise an alternative grand prix, the would-be rebels agreed to co-operate in streamlining the current format.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 23