Tennis: Spain finds a shock hero

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The Independent Online
Sergi Bruguera of Spain goes into today's final of the most important event of the year outside the Grand Slam full of confidence after pulling off the shock of the tennis year so far by coming back from a one-set deficit to beat Pete Sampras in the semi-finals of the Lipton Championships.

Bruguera, who won 5-7 7-6 6-4, faces Thomas Muster, and has no doubts as to his form after his display against Sampras. "I played unbelievably," he said. "During the match I kept thinking fight, play the best tennis and I think I did it.

"I'm very proud of this victory; very, very proud. I think it's more difficult to beat Pete playing on his surface and in his own country."

The good news for Muster might well be that Bruguera's strength could have been sapped by the brutal two-hour, eight-minute match, which was fought throughout in hot, humid conditions. For his part, Muster breezed through his semi-final against Jim Courier 6-3 6-4 in the cool of the evening. He will have particular reasons for wanting to win today. Eight years ago, after defeating Yannick Noah to reach the Lipton final - the last final he has reached on American soil - Muster was struck by a drunk driver and suffered severed ligaments in his left knee. Many people feared that his career was over, but the Austrian was back on tour less than six months later.

He also has good reason to be confident against Bruguera, as he holds a 11-3 career lead in meetings with the Spaniard. Bruguera will be attempting to become the first Spaniard to win the Lipton title in the 13-year history of the tournament.

Something of the size of Bruguera's achievement in just reaching the final can be seen from Sampras's pre-match comments. "I should win, I really believe that," he said. "Sergi is a good player, but on hardcourt, it's a match I should win 9 times out of 10."

Sampras, who won the first three tournaments he played in 1997 - the Australian Open, San Jose and Philadelphia - had to change his tune afterwards. "Mentally, I just didn't have it today," he said. "I'm pretty tough on myself, feel like I should make every point. I just played a bad match, even though I played well, I had chances to beat him."

Bruguera, twice winner of the French Open, is better known as A clay- court specialist. Once ranked No3 in the world, Bruguera has struggled with a serious knee injury, and more recently, torn ligaments in his right ankle in December 1995. He ended 1996 the 81st-ranked player, but his performance here will move him back into the top 25.

Sampras offered Bruguera just four break points in the match and the Spaniard accepted each one - in the fourth game of the first set, the second game of the second set, and the third and seventh games of the third set. At 1-1 in the second set tiebreaker, Bruguera won six of the last seven points.

With Bruguera ahead 3-1 in the final set, Sampras broke even in the sixth game with a unreturnable drop volley, but the Spaniard immediately broke serve again in the seventh game at 30-40 with an exquisite backhand pass.