Pete Sampras scornfully dismisses the suggestion, but Greg Rusedski's tactless comments seem to have injected enough spring into the old champion's legs to carry him to a third consecutive United States Open final.
Provided Sjeng Schalken, the Dutch dark horse, does not extend Sampras beyond the margins of their four previous matches in the semi-finals today, the Californian is likely to be fresher, physically and mentally, when facing either Lleyton Hewitt or Andre Agassi tomorrow than he was when thrashed by Hewitt last year and Marat Safin in 2000.
Since Rusedski pointed out that Sampras is a step and a half slower and past his best after losing to the man with 13 Grand Slam singles titles in five sets in the third round, Sampras has outplayed Germany's Tommy Haas, the world No 3, and intimidated Andy Roddick, the player he called "the future of American men's tennis".
"I'm not here to shut up Greg," Sampras said after reducing the 20-year-old Roddick to an awe-stricken pupil of serve-and-volley on Thursday night. "Things that Greg say don't faze me and don't motivate me. I've got more important things to worry about than what he's saying and what the press is saying. I'm playing for myself, to challenge myself. It's my ability against someone else's ability. I feel like I can still do it. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here."
Roddick looked a loser from the moment he dropped serve in the opening game. He created only one break point, in the second game of the second set, and was put him out of his misery after an hour and a half, Sampras mastering the windy conditions in Arthur Ashe Stadium to win, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
"If someone's playing well," Roddick said, "they can make you look pretty bad. Pete was pretty spectacular tonight when he had to be." Sampras has a habit of illuminating Flushing Meadows, where he is unbeaten in 20 night matches.
Roddick was as gracious in defeat as he was forlorn on the court. "I can learn from what I saw on the other side of the net tonight," he said. "I watched what I should be doing on big points, and how to come in to the net. Pete's a great athlete, very graceful and fluid. That makes it easy on the eyes to watch." There was a ready-made excuse, but Roddick did not use it, saying that his bruised left ankle was no worse than the previous night when he defeated Juan Ignacio Chela, of Argentina. He did, however, blame his sluggish footwork for his lack of enterprise. "I was standing still half the time," he said.
Sampras, seeking his first title since Wimbledon 2000, was reunited with his former coach, Paul Annacone, after the disappointment of his second round loss to George Bastl, of Switzerland, at the All England Club in June. "Wimbledon was one of the ultimate low points of my career," he said. "Paul is a big reason why I'm playing the way I am now. Professionally, Paul and I probably hit a point last year where we needed to take a break from each other. I tried a few things this year that didn't pan out. To have him back was huge. He knows how I tick as a tennis player. You can't put a price on that."
Like all great sportsmen, Sampras does not need to be told how to play. "Paul knows it's not about forehands and backhand at this point in my tennis," Sampras said. "He's been watching me play this year. He knows what I'm going through. A lot of it is my state of mind, and he's helped me to regain my confidence." To borrow a phrase from the detective dramas, Annacone is playing good cop to Rusedski's bad cop.
The 26-year-old Schalken's progress to the semi-finals has taken him beyond the need for counselling. "I never thought that I would have the game to beat those powerful players," he said after defeating the promising young Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in five sets in the quarter-finals.
Schalken, tall, straight and uncluttered, is almost a throwback to the players who toured the world in the days before tennis went open. It seems fitting, therefore, that he should be the first Dutchman to advance to the last four since Tom Okker reached the final at Forest Hills in 1968, the occasion when amateurs and professionals first competed together at this event. Okker lost to Arthur Ashe but took the $14,000 prize-money because Ashe, who was in the army, was still an amateur.
"I've got my hands full against Sjeng," Sampras said. "He's an experienced pro who does everything well." Should the Dutch 24th seed prevail, however, the US Open will be Schalken, but not stirred.
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