Yzaga withers in heat

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FLUSHING MEADOW is a harsh environment in which to play tennis. It is a mass of steel, concrete and grime, heat, noise and glare. Planes roar overhead. At times the crowd's decibel levels do not seem much lower. From the top of the vast canyon that is the Stadium Court, the players are reduced to blips on a computer screen.

Perhaps it is not surprising that they should show signs of desensitisation. Who, for example, would have imagined that nice, quiet, well-mannered Pete Sampras declaring of an up-coming opponent, "I'm going to kick his ass"? But that is what he said before meeting Jaime Yzaga, of Peru, in the second round of the US Open here on Friday night, and he was true to his word, overwhelming him 6-1 6-4 6-3 in an hour and 32 minutes.

A year ago, as the defending champion, Sampras lost to Yzaga in the fourth round, one of the biggest upsets of the year. Any top player can have an off-day, and the blisters Sampras was suffering from could be offered in further mitigation, but this defeat gnawed away at him. The chance to put the record straight brought out a vengefulness in the No 2 seed that has seldom been seen.

"Once I saw the draw and the possibilities of playing Jaime, I was really looking forward to it," Sampras said. "Last year really didn't sit well with me. I was disappointed. I wasn't in shape. I was unprepared. And tonight I was really pumped up. The adrenalin was sinking in and it is just a matter of staying aggressive and not hitting any loose errors."

Under the circumstances, the 27-year-old from Lima, ranked 69 in the world, had no chance. He never even had a break point. The physical disparity between them - Sampras is 6ft 1in, Yzaga 5ft 7in - need not have counted for much, but here it did. Sampras hit harder off the ground, got to the net more, and his serve was devastating. In both the first set, which lasted only 21 minutes, and the third, Sampras won the point every time he got his first serve in. If there was anger there, it was of the controlled variety, and all the more effective for it.

"I got off to a great start and it kind of set the tone for the match," Sampras said. "Had a couple of little hiccups in the second, but the second set was really the match." He added that he was reminded of something Fred Perry used to say: "I'd hate to be playing me today."

What of the man who had to? Yzaga acknowledged: "He hit good serves and every time I would go to his forehand he would hit a winner. So he kept me out of my rhythm all the time."

Sampras has had a strange year. He began it by losing in the final of the Australian Open to Andre Agassi. He then lurched to first-round defeat at the French Open, recovered to retain his Wimbledon title for the third time in a row, but was out of sorts during the American hard-court season that leads up to the US Open. Does he now feel the graph has taken another upward turn? "Basically at this point, you put the summer behind you," he said. "It is pretty much crunch time for me because the summer wasn't great, so I definitely would like another major title this year."

For his next match Sampras must play Mark Philippoussis, one of a crop of talented young Australians which is making its mark on the world game. Philippoussis, aged 18 and from Melbourne, is ranked 93 in the world and caused an upset in the second round by beating the more highly ranked Marc Goellner, of Germany, 7-6 6-2 7-5.

Philippoussis has twice played in the Australian Open, but this is his first appearance in any other Grand Slam tournament, having failed at the qualifying stage of the US Open last year. At 6ft 4in, he won't be intimidated by Sampras and will match him for service power.

"I saw my draw and that Sampras was third round," Philippoussis said. "My goal was to try to get there to play him. And for me, the reason for playing is to play guys like that, to prove something to myself." Sampras will need to be wary - Philippoussis pushed Stefan Edberg to four sets at this year's Australian Open.

In the women's singles Gabriela Sabatini, whose only Grand Slam title was here in 1990, gave an assured performance in her third-round match against Sabine Appelmans, of Belgium, hitting deep and close to the lines to win 6-1 6-1 in an hour and eight minutes. She now meets Martina Hingis.

This is the tournament that brings out the best in the Argentine, whose talent has so often been squandered elsewhere. But marking the 10th anniversary of her first appearance at Flushing Meadows with a second title may be beyond her.