TENNIS: Weary Sampras earns a timely respite

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The ring of a mobile telephone in a crowded interview room interrupted Pete Sampras in mid-sentence. "It's for me," he joked. "It's the President." Bill Clinton could use somebody with such fortitude.

Sampras is one match away from making a successful defence of the Australian Open singles title, having completed an extraordinary five days with a semi-final victory against Michael Chang.

The world No 1 now has two days' respite to prepare a battered mind and body for Sunday's all-American final against Andre Agassi or Aaron Krickstein.

Time has suddenly become the Wimbledon champion's ally, having almost caused his downfall during a traumatic second week of the tournament.

Concern about results became secondary to the health of his coach, Tim Gullikson, yet Sampras summoned the will and inspiration to recover twice from two sets down to defeat Magnus Larsson, of Sweden, and Florida's Jim Courier, breaking down in tears during the final set of Wednesday night's classic against his compatriot.

Barely 36 hours later, facing Chang, the greatest retriever in the game, Sampras managed to restrict his handicapping to a one-set deficit. Even so, a 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory required three hours and seven minutes [the same as the Larsson five-setter], which means Sampras has spent a total of 10 hours on court in his last three matches.

Acknowledged as a magnificent player, the 23-year-old American's strength of character and display of emotional vulnerablity has endeared him to a wider audience. As Chang said: "He's been able to focus on his tennis and still be a very compassionate person at the same time. I think that we've seen a few different sides of Pete Sampras.''

Sampras welcomed the revised perception. "I might look lackadaisical," he said, "but deep down inside I'm doing whatever I can to try to win. The crowd went through a lot with me and they pulled me through. I'm pretty thankful for that.

"I think people understand that I'm normal, I have feelings like everyone else, and that I'm not a robot out there. The way I play and the way I carry myself is just the way I am. I'm as normal as the guy across the street." Since Gullikson returned to Chicago for medical tests, he and Sampras have kept in contact by telephone. "Tim is doing very good," Sampras said. "He's in good spirits.''

While Sampras legislates for surprises in his matches, he was taken aback when the diminutive Chang out-aced him, 20-13. To balance matters, midway through the second set, when the champion was showing signs of fatigue, Chang uncharacteristically accumulated unforced errors and lost seven games in a row.

At the end of a contest enlivened by rallies stretching beyond 20 shots, Chang congratulated his opponent and told him: "I wish it was four out of seven sets instead of three out of five.''

Tomorrow, a tall blonde who hits mighty forehands will stand between Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and her ambition to become the new champion and the world No 1. But on this occasion the opponent is not Steffi Graf, but Mary Pierce, of France, the No 4 seed.

If the Spaniard can repeat the form she showed in defeating Pierce in the final of the French Open last June, she will supplant Graf and become the sixth No 1 in the 20 years of computer rankings. The others were Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin and Monica Seles.

Pierce, the first seeded opponent Sanchez Vicario has encountered here, expressed a determination not to be overwhelmed. "At the French I was nervous playing in the finals with the whole crowd cheering for me.''

Expectation had been high in Paris after Pierce demolishedGraf in the semi-finals. Yesterday, she beat the current Wimbledon champion, Conchita Martinez, 6-3, 6-1, a result which had more to do with the No 2 seed's decline than Pierce's ability.

It was the first time they had played each other, though according to Martinez they still haven't. "I just didn't play," the Spaniard said, "probably because the match was so early." The players were on court at 11am, and back in the locker room 72 minutes later. Pierce did her best to prolong the match by wasting time before serving, for which she was warned.

Sanchez Vicario also had a straight-sets, 6-4, 6-1 victory yesterday, though her semi-final against Marianne Werdel Witmeyer, the unseeded 27-year-old American who eliminated Gabriela Sabatini in the first round, was more entertaining.

A disappointing women's event could be salvaged by a competitive final. Both players were slightly concerned about twinges in their racket arms during yesterday's matches, so we can only wish more power to their elbows.