Pete Sampras won his first title of the year at the Ericsson Open here last evening, but the Wimbledon champion needed seven match points in a fourth set tie-break to subdue the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, 6-1, 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, after three hours and 18 minutes.
The disappointed Kuerten - "Guga" to Brazilian sports fans - sat on his seat and buried his head in a towel, convinced he had let down his compatriots who filled the upper tear of the 14,000-seat Stadium Court. It hardly lifted his spirits to hear Sampras tell the crowd: "It was a hard match. Gustavo played great, and the crowd got behind us to make it a great occasion."
Kuerten's challenge ended amid the excitement of the fourth-set tie-break, which Sampras won, 10-8, after the Brazilian had fought back from 2-6, reprieved on the fifth match point when Sampras double-faulted at 7-6. The Brazilians considered that justice was done, having whistled and booed and line call that went against their favourite to give Sampras the opportunity.
Sampras, who seved 20 aces but made 50 unforced errors, continued to be the more foreceful, finding the court with a backhand volley against Kuerten's serve for 9-8, at which point the Brazilian could only watch in horror as his forehand drive hit the net cord and flew over the baseline.
Kuerten may require a day or two to recover from this disappointment, but his challenge erased the memory of his straight-sets defeat by the American indoors in a round-robin match at the ATP Tour Championships in Hanover in November last year.
The Brazilian can also take heart from the fact that yesterday's performance, in contrast to his straight-sets win against Andre Agassi in the semi-finals, was not marred by an injury to his opponent.
Playing the world's top two back-to-back was not an easy proposition, and Kuerten knows that yesterday's match was threatening to run away from him in at the start.
Early in the opening set, a chant in Portuguese went up from the top tier. It translated as: "Get rid of the old man, Guga." The Brazilian was also given instructions by his supporters during the Agassi match: "Clean the head of the bald man, Guga." That proved easier to achieve. Sampras might be thinning on top, but he is not a candidate for early retirement.
Kuerten, broken for 1-3, found Sampras unstoppable during the first 28 minutes, by which time the Californian had romped through the set for the loss of only six points on his serve.
The Brazilian supporters, who were quietened by Sampras's impressive display of serving and returning, were virtually silenced when Kuerten was broken for 2-3 in the second set and then faced a set point when serving at 3-5, 30-40, after 59 minutes. But he was equal to it, frustrating Sampras by delivering an unreturnable serve.
Sampras still had an opportunity to serve out for a two sets to love lead, but was broken for 5-5, Kuerten passing him with a specacular forehand return, from corner to corner, for 30-40, and converting with a backhand lob that was greeted by the first convincing shouts of "Gu-ga! Gu-ga!" from the upperdeck.
Kuerten, who servede 16 aces, controlled the second set tie-break from the moment Sampras missed a forehand half-volley from the Brazilian's returnn at 1-1, and secured the shoot-out, 7-2, to level the match.
Sampras won the third set tie-break, 7-5, Kuerten having recovered from 1-5, and the Brazilian held two set points at 6-5 in the fourth set, only for the weary-looking Sampras to revive and give the tournament a rousing climax.
Martina Hingis knows how it feels to be blown away in a final after being drained, mentally and physically, by the effort of winning a semi-final. It happened to her when she played the Williams sisters one after the other at the United States Open last year, Venus drawing Hingis's sting, Serena making the kill.
It was Hingis's turn to capitalise on Saturday, after Lindsay Davenport exhausted her reserves of power in overcoming Sandrine Testud, of France, in the semi-finals.
"Lindsay came off a tough win against Sandrine, and it's not that easy to play three tournaments in a row," Hingis acknowledged after taking only 58 minutes to defeat her chief rival, 6-3, 6-2. "Even if things are going well and everything you play is great, it's still very tiring. It takes a lot out of you. Every time you go out there you have to motivate yourself, push yourself one more day, one more time."
Hingis's semi-final amounted to a 39-minute stroll against the injured Monica Seles, 6-0, 6-0, leaving plenty in the tank for running around the court, returning most of the shots Davenport was still capable of driving towards the lines.Reuse content