Tennis:Krajicek well-served

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IF RICHARD Krajicek's 6-7 6-4 7-6 victory over Pete Sampras in the semi-finals of the Eurocard Open in Stuttgart yesterday was bad news for the world's number one it was also dire tidings for Tim Henman.

Henman is at present clinging on to the eighth and final place in the qualifying race for the ATP World Championships in Hanover next month, but if Krajicek wins the title here this afternoon he will move in front of the British number one. His opponent will be Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who beat Jonas Bjorkman 6-2 7-5 in the other semi-final.

With all the leading competitors in action again at the indoor event in Paris, which gets under way tomorrow there is still plenty to play for, but Henman will need to show better form than he did here to make certain of taking part in his first World Championships.

Krajicek is one of a very few in the game to hold a winning record against Sampras. He now leads the American by five matches to two and has won on the last three occasions they have met, including the 1996 Wimbledon quarter-finals. "He seems to play with no fear against me," was how Sampras summed it up.

Sampras has been in Europe for four weeks now in search of enough points to keep him ahead of his closest challengers, Marcelo Rios and Patrick Rafter, and ensure that he finishes number one for a record sixth straight year.

He denied that the travelling and the strain was beginning to take its toll. "I felt fresh today, mentally and physically," he said. "The key right now is to regroup for next week in Paris after coming so close to the final of a big event. I have to stay mentally strong but I don't think the fact that I have been over here for so long had any bearing on the match today. I am pretty pissed about this result. I think the destination of the number one ranking is going to come down to Hanover but this was a good opportunity missed.

"Success is walking out of here with the title, and anything else is not good enough in my book."

The one hour 55 minute contest, in which Krajicek never dropped serve and Sampras was broken only once, was decided on the final tie-break. Sampras admitted afterwards, "I got a little bit tight then. He was putting on so much pressure. I hit a couple of weak shots and that's tennis."

No such problems for the 6ft 5in Dutchman. He served magnificently, achieving a 91 per cent strike rate on his first serve and 60 per cent on the second and was so dominant on his own delivery that he needed to save just one break point.

With two such powerful servers this match was always in danger of being one- dimensional and in the first nine games only four points were won against the serve. Then Sampras gained the lone break point with a backhand service return which clipped the net and skipped over Krajicek's racket. Having escaped two break points at 5-5, Sampras extended the first set into a tie-break and dominated it, twice gaining mini-breaks on the Krajicek serve to win it by seven points to two.

The second set, too, seemed destined for a tiebreak until Sampras dramatically dropped serve in the tenth game with three double-faults. The final set was again totally ruled by the service action as both men pushed their aces past the 15 mark. But it was another crucial double-fault - his sixth and final one - which cost Sampras the tie-break and the match he so much wanted to win.

Sampras said, "In all the close matches we have played, Richard just seems to squeak it out. It also happened at Wimbledon a couple of years ago. I felt I was going to break through and beat him today, so this loss is tough to take."

Krajicek confessed he was "just hanging in there" until he suddenly broke the Sampras serve. "The thought that I had beaten him a couple of times before kept my morale up." And the secret of that winning streak? "I just try to attack Pete, not let him dominate. As soon as that happens you are lost."

Of his chances for the World Championships, Krajicek said, "I was tenth in the qualifying but so far behind Tim Henman at number eight I didn't even think of it. Now suddenly it is a possibility. Finally I have a realistic shot at making it, so winning the final tomorrow will be very important. I think Tim feels my breath on his neck now."