Originally created 08/30/98

Emerson record a driving force for Pete Sampras



NEW YORK -- If there is an image of Wimbledon that lingers in Pete Sampras' mind, symbolizing the twin sides of a championship, it is the sad, slumping figure of Goran Ivanisevic holding the pitifully small runner-up trophy in his large hands, his eyes simultaneously wild and vanquished, his voice screaming in silence.

"He was very, very distraught. I felt bad for him," Sampras said after watching a videotape of their five-set final last month.

It wasn't the first time Sampras left a victim devastated, and most likely it won't be the last. Sampras may not be a cinch to claim a fifth title at the U.S. Open, which starts Monday, and balance his trophy case with the five big ones from Wimbledon, but who else is a more likely candidate to win this year?

Sampras' attack-dog style, often obscured by his cool demeanor, bared its teeth at Wimbledon after a yearlong lull. He gnawed and clawed and snapped his way to the five-set victory over Ivanisevic, and set himself up to take another bite out of history at the Open.

Roy Emerson's record 12 Grand Slam titles is there for the matching if Sampras can win seven straight matches once more at the ever-expanding, ever-more-beautiful National Tennis Center. There's no pressure on Sampras, just turned 27, to tie Emerson right away, but he'd just as soon get this long-anticipated record out of the way, if only to stop talking about it.

Sampras is, in a word, motivated. To tie Emerson and eventually pass him. To toss aside the challenge of Marcelo Rios for the No. 1 spot. To repel the resurgent Andre Agassi. To dethrone the defending champion, Patrick Rafter. To destroy again, if necessary, Ivanisevic.

"When you're playing well and you're winning tournaments, guys fear you," Sampras said. "You've kind of built an aura about you. You intimidate guys. ...

"I feel very motivated. I'm to the point where my two main goals are to be No. 1 and to do well in the majors. ... I still enjoy it. I still love to compete."

Sampras stayed busy after Wimbledon with three straight hard-court tournaments, playing erratically, losing early at New Haven after reaching the final in Cincinnati and the quarters at the Canadian Open. He didn't intimidate, but he did enough to regain the No. 1 ranking just in time to be top-seeded at the Open.

"I'm in pretty good match shape," Sampras said. "Let's go out and play."

Agassi is in pretty good shape, too. Which is a whole lot different from a year ago, when he came in a bit porky and soft, and lost in the fourth round after skipping the three previous Grand Slam events while on an extended honeymoon with Brooke Shields.

These days, Agassi is a lean, mean, ball-return machine again, tracking down everything from the baseline, punching back shots the way he used to. The U.S. Open winner in 1994, and twice a runner-up, the No. 8 Agassi looms as a possible quarterfinal opponent for Sampras.

Agassi has won two of their three meetings this year and has primed himself for another title run by playing consistently strong since his second-round ouster from Wimbledon. He won hard-court tournaments at Washington and Los Angeles, reached the final at Indianapolis, the semis at the Canadian Open, and lost early only at Cincinnati.

If Agassi isn't threat enough to Sampras, Rafter may be. Rafter's world changed when he won the Open last year, but after a stretch of patchy tennis, he may be up for the challenge of defending his title. For one thing, he won't be weighed down, as Sampras was at 20 when he came back to defend his first Open title, by the sense of carrying an unbearable weight.

"I don't think I will ever say it's a burden because it is something I always wanted to happen," said Rafter, seeded No. 3 this year and in Sampras' half of the draw. "At times it's been tough dealing with a lot of extra things on the side other than tennis. That has been very tough. But a burden I would never say because it is something it has been a big dream of mine to win."

Sampras, Agassi and Rafter are among perhaps eight men who could capture the Open without too much of a surprise. Among the women, the number jumps to about a dozen.

Start with defending champion Martina Hingis, but consider how spotty and, at times, indifferent her game has been this year since winning the first major in Australia. Remember the surge Venus Williams put on to get to the final last year, and the way she's matured this year.

Consider the tear Lindsay Davenport has been on this summer as she keeps melting away pounds and mounting up victories. Think about indefatigable Arantxa Sanchez Vicario winning the French Open, and Jana Novotna striking another blow for the older set by capturing Wimbledon at last. Look at the threats posed by the likes of Nathalie Tauziat, Natasha Zvereva, Conchita Martina and, most obviously, Monica Seles, pounding away, free of pain and worry, showing flashes of her once-invincible groundstrokes.

And, finally, don't forget the budding brilliance of Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova, nor Steffi Graf, returning after a year on the sidelines, her fragile knees and back and ankles holding up so far.

A five-time U.S. Open champion who sat out last year after knee surgery, Graf is seeded No. 8 this time, the middle of the pack but as dangerous as ever.

"I'm absolutely fine; there are no problems," Graf said. "I've got the shots and I've got the strength. I just need the confidence."