The home fires set Sampras burning

Ronald Atkin finds the history man is in need of domestic bliss

The starting stalls open up tomorrow on that marathon munchfest, the US Open, this year's last Grand Slam. The site at Flushing Meadows, New York, is geared for those who celebrate the occasion as an annual eat-on-the-hoof outing, as well as the minority who come to watch tennis.

The starting stalls open up tomorrow on that marathon munchfest, the US Open, this year's last Grand Slam. The site at Flushing Meadows, New York, is geared for those who celebrate the occasion as an annual eat-on-the-hoof outing, as well as the minority who come to watch tennis.

So-called new speed lines have been introduced to the hot dog stalls to get customers back to their seats "in record time", a third hamburger stand has been added and, great news this, "the size of the frank and sausage stand has been doubled". More joy: "If you like taking your food back to your seat," the Open's website informs us, "the popular crêpe creations have been redesigned this year and will be folded into a cone for easier consumption."

What else? Oh yes, the tennis. Between the franks, sausages, burgers and crêpe creations, the clientele may well be pondering the tournament's chances of coming up with a brace of American champions - as it did last year when Andre Agassi and Serena Williams became the first since Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert in 1982 to clock up a US sweep of the singles.

It could certainly happen again. Agassi and Pete Sampras look the best men's bets, though they would clash in the semi-finals, while Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters pose the most obvious threat to the hopes of the women's top seed, Martina Hingis.

The surprise to punters may be that Sampras, with 13 Grand Slams, including four US Opens, is seeded only fourth, behind Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten and Magnus Norman. This is because the tournament, unlike Wimbledon, nominates seeds direct from the ATP Tour's year-round rankings, the Entry System. Hence the ticket-sellers' dream, an Agassi-Sampras final, is wrecked by the ill-luck of the draw placing them in the same half. One wonders how Wimbledon's seeding committee might have handled this one, especially in the unlikely event of it involving two Britons.

Certainly, American TV won't be pleased about that, though Sampras will be happy enough just to be there, having been forced to withdraw on the opening morning a year ago with a back injury sustained in practice. That problem, a herniated disc, is something Sampras has subsequently learned to live, and play, with. Agassi, too, is labouring with a dodgy back, exacerbated recently when his car was struck from behind: such are the perils of living in Las Vagas.

Agassi's season has inevitably been less spectacular than the 1999 record of two Grand Slams and a runner-up, but by winning the Australian Open in January he held three of the game's top four titles until losing the French crown in May. The Australian remains Agassi's only tournament victory of the year to date, though he lost the Washington final last week to Alex Corretja, a result which so infuriated the American that he indulged in a rare spot of racket smashing.

Sampras has collected only two titles in 2000 but they are biggies, Wimbledon and the Masters Series at Key Biscayne. That sort of reward is what Sampras, 29 earlier this month, has been directing his energies towards for some time and he is acutely aware his last success in his home event came four years ago.

Tim Henman, who celebrates his 26th birthday in the tournament's second week, has been in fine form on the North American circuit which leads to Flushing Meadows. He was runner-up in Cincinnati and a semi-finalist at Indianapolis. Just as well, since after what look like a couple of routine matches (though these are all too often where he stumbles) the 11th-seeded Henman could face a third round match with Richard Krajicek, floating dangerous and unseeded.

After that the road gets rougher: potentially Yevgeny Kafelnikov, then Sampras, then Agassi. If he survives that lot Henman will have deserved to celebrate not only his birthday but also a first Grand Slam final appearance. Much has been made of the statistic that the Oxford man has lost his last seven finals. He can perhaps take comfort from the fact that Connors once lost 11 finals in succession.

Is it really only three years ago since Greg Rusedski got to the final here? Is it only 10 months since he won the richest prize in the game, the Grand Slam Cup? Greg's subsequent subsidence has been painful for all concerned and, if fit, he goes into action disastrously short of match practice and confidence because of ongoing foot problems and having mislaid his big shot, the thunderball serve. You know things are rough when Greg cannot muster a grin and you have to wish him well. Ditto Patrick Rafter, the 1997 and 1998 champion, whose shoulder is playing up again and who could not find a place among the seeds.

Ongoing problems with her lower back have ruled out one of the women's brighter hopes of an upset, Amelie Mauresmo, so it is difficult to look beyond four players as potential winners. The mighty-muscled Serena Williams defaulted in the third set of last weekend's Montreal final against Hingis because of foot trouble but she will be pawing the ground, anxious to embark on the defence of the title she won so spectacularly 12 months ago. On that occasion Hingis overcame Venus Williams in a semi-final that was so draining she had nothing left against Serena next day.

The same thing could happen again. But the Swiss girl has a potential fourth round against one of her pet rabbits, Sandrine Testud (11-0), and a quarter-final with Monica Seles (10-2) so she ought to be in good shape should the Williamses again loom in her path.

Since her glorious start to the year Davenport has been hobbled by injuries. The long-standing hamstring problem has been joined by back damage sustained at the Italian Open in May and then a foot sprain in Montreal. It all looks a bit ominous for the second seed, hardly renowned anyway for mobility. Two talented Belgian teenagers, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, who have given her trouble before, are in her immediate vicinity in the draw. Then should come Anna Kournikova, who has sacked her coach, Eric Van Harpen and is now taking advice from her redoubtable mother, Alla. Then it could be curtains in the quarters if Serena is rampant.

But the spectators will be content. At least an American will be the guaranteed winner of that one and they can all go on eating their hearts out.

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