- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 8, 2001

NEW YORK When it was over, as a grateful crowd roared in approval and the longtime rivals met in the aftermath of their riveting U.S. Open quarterfinal bout late Wednesday night, a vanquished Andre Agassi leaned across the net and made a single request of Pete Sampras.

"Win this thing," Agassi said.

A four-time U.S. Open winner, Sampras would be more than happy to oblige. He can move within a victory of his fifth title this afternoon, when he takes on defending champion Marat Safin in a semifinal redux of last year's final.

In the other semifinal, No. 7 seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov faces No. 4 seed Lleyton Hewitt, who lost to Sampras in last year's semifinals.

"Last time I played Marat, I was pretty humbled out there," said Sampras, the No. 10 seed. "Should be another good test."

Indeed, Sampras was more than humbled by Safin in last year's final he was given the equivalent of an ego vivisection.

Blasting 130 mph-plus aces, pounding whiplash passing shots and even teeing off on Sampras' serve a formerly ludicrous proposition Safin easily expunged the 13-time Grand Slam champ, winning in straight sets.

That defeat marked the beginning of a downward spiral for Sampras, who lost for the first time in five years at this summer's Wimbledon and hasn't won a title in 14 months, the longest drought of his career.

Coupled with his hangdog on-court countenance and his increasingly patchy hairline, Sampras' mediocre results prompted a flurry of retirement speculation in the months leading up to the U.S. Open.

"It has been a disappointing year," Sampras said. "To be honest about it, [the criticism] has been well deserved in a way. But what I don't appreciate is the retirement talk. I think it's gotten a little bit carried away. I'm still around."

Judging from the past two weeks, Sampras has a point. His volleys are spry. His forehand is crackling. His much-maligned backhand is rounding into form. And his booming serve long the cornerstone of his dominance is as dangerous as ever, evidenced by his 71 straight holds of serve.

"Based on everything I read, I'd say many people were writing articles underestimating him," Agassi said. "I think the players go out there with a tremendous respect for how he can step it up and play. I mean, you still got to beat him. The guy still has a huge serve, and he can still he knows when to put pressure on you and how to play."

Like Sampras, Safin came into the tournament on the heels of a sub-par season. After finishing last year ranked a career-best No. 2 in the world, Safin looked like the game's heir apparent, an inevitable No. 1 and a perennial Grand Slam contender.

Instead, the 21-year-old Russian has battled through knee and stomach injuries over the last six months, his plunging confidence matched by wildly inconsistent play that saw him advance to the Wimbledon quarterfinals but lose matches to an array of no-name opponents.

"In Montreal or Cincinnati, I would never think I can make semifinals of U.S. Open, no way, because I was playing so bad," Safin said. "I was struggling. I was trying to play try to at least put the ball inside the court. But wasn't possible."

Though Safin has played better with each match in his run to the semifinals and flat-out crushed quarterfinal opponent Mariano Zabaleta he doesn't expect to throttle Sampras for a second straight year.

Safin and Sampras have split their previous two meetings, with Sampras winning at last fall's Tennis Masters Cup and Safin victorious at May's World Team Cup.

"I have to forget last year," Safin said. "Last year doesn't exist. I played too good, and I cannot play this game never again. It's impossible. It's too good."

Hewitt will be looking to improve on his straight-set loss to Sampras in last year's semifinals, his best showing in a Grand Slam.

A fiery, tenacious player with one of the sport's top returns of serve, the 20-year-old Australian has risen to a career-best No. 4 ranking and leads the ATP tour with 62 match wins this season.

"I wanted to make the semifinals again," said Hewitt, who knocked off American wunderkind Andy Roddick in a thrilling five-set quarterfinal. "I've had a consistent year without having a great or fantastic year. I've made a lot of semifinals in the Masters Series events but haven't been able to make that next step up in the Slams or Masters Series."

Kafelnikov, by contrast, is a seasoned tour veteran with two Grand Slams (1999 Australian Open, 1996 French Open) under his belt. A semifinalist at the 1999 U.S. Open and a top-10 fixture for almost a decade, the 27-year-old Russian knows his Grand Slam chances are numbered.

"Here I am again with the opportunity," Kafelnikov said. "But it's still a long way to win the title."

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