Sampras pushed to the limit


PETE SAMPRAS, so ill that he looked close to giving up in the fifth set tie break, held on for an emotional victory over Alex Corretja in the quarter finals of the US Open tennis championships early today.

The longest match of this year's tournament - four hours and nine minutes - ended on a Corretja double fault for a 7-6, 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6, victory that puts Sampras into the semi finals against Stefan Edberg or Goran Ivanisevic.

Moments after the match, a weeping Sampras told his girlfriend, Delaina Mulcahy, that the memory of his late coach, Tim Gullikson, helped him through. "We cried a little together, and he said, I did it for Tim. Tim was there with me'," Mulcahy said. Gullikson died in May after a 15 month battle with brain cancer.

Sampras, who vomited at the back of the court after the first two points of the fifth set tie break, nevertheless continued to match Corretja point for point. At 3-3, he looked barely able to walk to the other end of the court, but still served a 124 mph service winner for 4-3.

Corretja hit a backhand wide to give Sampras his first match point at 6-5, but Sampras netted a forehand. Then it was Corretja's turn, as he took a 7-6 lead, only to see Sampras hit a forehand volley winner off his cross court passing attempt. "Maybe if I played it down the line, I would have won it," Corretja said. "I hit the passing shot and he was there."

Sampras took an 8-7 lead with a well placed, low speed ace, then Corretja sealed his fate with only his third double fault of the match. "It was probably the best match of my career, and the worst one," Corretja said. "The last point, I just wanted to put the ball in and it goes out."

After embracing Sampras at the net, Corretja sat motionless in his chair with a towel pressed to his face until the crowd chanting his name brought him to his feet. "I couldn't move, I was just sitting down in my chair disappointed, and they started calling my name and it made me react," he said. "They really helped me."

Sampras's current coach, Paul Annacone, said Sampras was well when he started the match. Tournament doctor Brian Hainline said Sampras was dehydrated, but did not appear to have a serious gastric illness.

"A lot of people saw things today that most won't see in a lifetime," Annacone said. "Alex Corretja should get a lot of credit for what he did. What Pete did there are no words. It was exhilarating to watch. The guy is pretty special, and special people do special things."

Andre Agassi qualified for the semi final yesterday with a victory over Thomas Muster. Allsquare in their previous meetings, there was absolutely nothing even this time.

Agassi played his best tennis since he lost the US final to Sampras last year. Muster was pulled from side to side along the baseline until he threatened to come apart at the seams. His efforts to run Agassi down were prodigious, but the American apart from the third set when he too was visibly tired, always held the whip hand.

It was a masterful performance by Agassi who won 6-2, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2. But pathetic performances at Roland Garros and Wimbledon seemed all the more indefensible.

This is a terrible problem for tennis. He is, without a doubt, the most charismatic and brilliant player on the circuit, yet his commitment to the game that has made him immensely rich is at best patchy, and at worst despicable. Not that New Yorkers care a lot. He is here and playing brilliantly. And to hell with the rest of the world's public.

Agassi now plays Michael Chang. It is unthinkable Agassi will lose.

Today, Swiss teenager Martina Hingis faces Steffi Graf in the women's semi finals. Hingis, 15, joins defending champion Graf and 1995 finalist Monica Seles, who share the world number one ranking, and world number three Conchita Martinez of Spain in the final four.

Hingis will take on top seed Graf and fourth seed Martinez will meet second seeded Seles, with the Swiss and the Spaniard trying to prevent a repeat of the 1995 final.