Tennis: The omens favour Sampras

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PETE SAMPRAS will defend his ATP Tour Championship against Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov over the best of five sets on the indoor concrete court here today, and from the American's point of view the portents are good.

For one thing, Sampras has won 8 of his 10 previous matches against Kafelnikov, the Russian having succeeded twice on slow clay courts. For another, Sampras has won the title three times after losing a match in the round-robin segment. The only time he reached the final without losing a match, in 1993, he was beaten by Germany's Michael Stich.

"It's all coincidence," Sampras said, smiling. Last year, the world No 1 won a thrilling five-set final against Boris Becker, having lost to the German, 7-6, 7-6, in the round-robin. In his opening match this time, Sampras was defeated in three sets by Carlos Moya. The 21-year-old Spaniard was eliminated by Kafelnikov in yesterday's semi-finals, 7-6, 7-6.

Sampras, whose form has improved match by match since the loss to Moya, continued his domination of Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman yesterday, 6-3, 6- 4, after 75 minutes. Bjorkman has won only one of their eight matches, surprisingly on grass in the quarter-finals of the Stella Artois Championship at Queen's Club, London, during the lead-up to Wimbledon.

Bjorkman will have another chance to improve his record against Sampras when Sweden play the United States in the Davis Cup Final in Gothenburg next month. The Swede must hope to have better luck with his opportunities than he did with the two that came yesterday.

Sampras, under pressure in the opening game, saved a break point with a forehand volley. The American was barely troubled again until the sixth game of the second set, when he missed a backhand down the line for 30- 40. A couple of service winners cleared the danger.

Having dispatched Pat Rafter from the tournament by denying him a set on Friday, Sampras gave the Australian a helping hand to No 2 in the world yesterday. The gesture was not philanthropic, however. By defeating Bjorkman in defence of the title, he ended the Swede's prospects of beating Rafter to No 2 in the rankings. Bjorkman ends the year at a career-high No 4, having started the year at No 69.

Kafelnikov not only lost a match in the round-robin, but was beaten by a substitute, Britain's Tim Henman interrupting his progress to the final of National Championships at Telford by dropping in on Friday and returning $110,000 (pounds 66,000) the richer.

The Russian was keen to emphasise that the Henman match was meaningless because he had already qualified as the leader of the White Group. Yesterday, however, Kafelnikov almost came unstuck against Moya, whose profligacy denied him a place in the final on his first appearance among the world's elite eight.

Kafelnikov saved three break points in the seventh game, but lost his serve on the fourth, Moya hitting a smash for 6-5. The Spaniard had four set points in the next, missing two forehands, being passed by a backhand down the line, double-faulting on the fourth. Moya hit two shots long, and found himself in a tie-break, in which Kafelnikov sprinted to 7-2.

The second set followed a similar pattern of frustration for the Spaniard. Kafelnikov raised Moya's hopes by finding the net with a smash from close range on the third break point against him in the sixth game. But Moya again failed to serve out the set. A backhand over the baseline presented Kafelnikov with two break points, and he converted the first with an angled backhand volley.

Moya approached the second tie-break with the look of a haunted man, and Kafelnikov again took control to win the shoot-out, 7-3, to advance to the final after and hour and a half on court.

The Russian's last match against Sampras was in the semi-finals of the recent Paris indoor event. After Sampras won, 7-6, 6-3, Kafelnikov said he would have to rely on the results of others to take him to Hannover while hoping to win his own matches. He qualified last Sunday by winning the Kremlin Cup in Moscow.