Sampras at odds with reputation

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The World has changed since Pete Sampras last played a tennis match, cutting a weary figure while losing to Lleyton Hewitt in the United States Open final at Flushing Meadows, New York, on 9 September. The shock of events two days later put sport in perspective for the great champion and caused him to think twice about travelling to future tournaments.

After watching the news and hearing President Bush urge Americans to get back to work, Sampras decided he had best join them. He left Los Angeles and resumed his career in the Masters Series tournament here, to "get back to normal".

But Sampras was anything but normal yesterday in winning his opening match against Stefan Koubek, of Austria, 6-3, 7-6. In place of the unflappable – some have said boring – seven-times Wimbledon champion was an agitated, fiery, demonstrative stranger at odds with the line judges and umpire and lucky not to be given a code violation for the first time he could remember.

Few could have doubted the 30-year-old Californian's commitment to end the season "on a positive note" by qualifying for next month's Masters Cup in Sydney and winning his first title since Wimbledon 2000. As dubious baseline calls and umpire's overrules accumulated against him, Sampras seemed on the verge of morphing into John McEnroe. He tossed his racket down, verbally remonstrated with one linesman, glared at another, and finally belted a ball to the rafters in anger.

Sampras, in common with the spectators, could only assume that he escaped punishment because of his previously unblemished record of good behaviour. "Usually when you hit a ball off the court, it's a given," he said. "The umpire knew I was agitated. I rarely have done that over my career." Smiling thinly, he added: "You know, being that upset, the reputation definitely helps to save a few bucks."

There were few signs of humour, however, in Sampras's assessment of the Italian umpire, Romano Grillotti, and his team: "I was pretty disgusted at some of those line calls. I normally don't show too much emotion, but it was blatantly obvious that a few of the line calls were ridiculous. The head umpire just didn't have much control of the match. I didn't have much confidence going for the line, to be honest with you."

The line-calls intensified Sampras's general unease, but his game seemed edgy, lacking the assurance of good timing. He reiterated that he has never been comfortably with first-round byes, preferring to "work my way into shape". He added: "I feel like I can play better as the week goes on – and I'm going to have to."

Having started with a win, Sampras has overtaken Tim Henman, the British No 1, in the rush for points to be among the eight Masters Cup qualifiers. So, too, has Sebastien Grosjean, of France, who defeated Albert Costa, of Spain, 6-3, 6-4. Yevgeny Kafelnikov, in sixth place, also opened with a win yesterday, beating Andrei Pavel, of Romania, 4-6, 7-6, 6-3.

Henman, ninth in the race, is due to play his third-round match today against Nicolas Lapentti, of Ecuador, a familiar adversary from Davis Cup matches. Lapentti had to save a match point yesterday in overcoming the 12th seed, Arnaud Clement, of France, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.

Not everyone here has a realistic chance of qualifying for the Masters Cup next month, but Andy Roddick, who embodies the future of the men's game in America, played well enough yesterday to win his opening match against Julien Boutter, of France, 7-6, 7-6. Boutter eliminated Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, in the first round.

* Britain, unseeded for today's Davis Cup World Group draw in Zurich, are guaranteed to play at home in the first round on 8-10 February next year if paired with France or Germany. They would have to travel if drawn against Australia, Spain, or the United States, and would draw lots for home advantage against Sweden, Russia, or Brazil.