Andre and Pete March Towards the Final Page

Published July 6th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

He'd be the first to admit it hasn't been all that pretty so far but Pete Sampras has hung tough to take his customary place in the last four of a Wimbledon men's singles. 

Sampras, on the verge of an historic 13th Grand Slam title and a record-equaling seventh Wimbledon crown, meets qualifier Vladimir Voltchkov on Friday with one eye on perennial rival and second seed Andre Agassi, who will face Aussie 12th seed Pat Rafter in the other showdown. 

Sampras has battled through the pain barrier to make it this far after a litany of injury problems, which the tournament organizers helpfully listed ahead of Wednesday's quarterfinal win over fellow American Jan-Michael Gambill. 

The 28-year-old mega athlete from Washington could almost double as a doctor's study course on the basis of his injury catalogue from the past two years alone. 

The run started at San Jose last year where he withdrew with an anterior tibial muscle cum tendon strain - that's just above the left ankle in plain English and a spasm in his lower back forced him to miss Barcelona a few weeks later. 

More recently a herniated disc made him sit out the US Open before a lower back strain brought another no-show in Scottsdale this year. 

Here, Sampras endured tendonitis in his left shin and foot in his second-round match against Karol Kucera. 

But here he is two wins away from surpassing Roy Emerson, with whom he shares the record of 12 Grand Slam singles titles to date and emulating William Renshaw, who won a seventh Wimbledon in 1889. 

In beating Gambill, Sampras broke his previous personal best of 25 straight wins at Wimbledon. 

Swedish legend Bjorn Borg holds that mark of 41 with his five straight wins between 1976 and 1981. 

Sampras says the injury problems have forced him to stay off the practice courts more than he would like - but he's still confident of another success. 

"I've been dealt this hand and there's not much I can do about it - just work through it. It's a challenge - this is what we play for. 

"I'm looking forward to a little time off. But hopefully I can stay around for the weekend." 

Voltchkov is out to write a little history of his own against Sampras as no qualifier has ever made the final here in the Open Era. 

"I'll have to get a tape to see what his strengths and weaknesses are," said Sampras. "It's always tough playing someone you've never played before." 

Voltchkov learned to play tennis on courts belonging to an automobile plant in his native Minsk. 

"To play Pete in the semi-finals of Wimbledon - it's like a dream come true," said Voltchkov, who is enjoying an unexpected late birthday present after turning 22 on Tuesday. 

Sampras, yet to face a seed, is not in a mood to have his own dreams punctured though he admits: "You can't take any match for granted." 

Agassi, whom Sampras beat in an almost flawless performance in the final 12 months ago with the former on a roll after completing his Grand Slam set with the French Open title, meanwhile looks as menacing as ever as he gears up to face Rafter. 

Having diced with disaster in the second round, where he saved two match points against Todd Martin, the Las Vegan showman showed in his four-set quarter-final defeat of Australian serve machine Mark Philippoussis that he is unquestionably the best returner in the game. 

And all the omens point in the American's favor. 

He not only beat Rafter in the semis last year in straight sets - even before the Queenslander was laid up with shoulder trouble - but beat him in the third round in 1993. 

In fact, Agassi is almost always ready to pounce on an Aussie - having a 10-1 Grand Slam record against the men from Down Under including the win over Philippoussis. 

Almost - because the exception was a Rafter win in the US Open round of 16 three years ago. 

"This is a great arena to play Pat because it's Wimbledon. He's one of the best competitors out there, if not the best," said Agassi. 

"We had a great match last year with a lot of high quality tennis and I don't expect anything less in a couple of days time." 

Rafter, like Sampras yet to face a seed, now faces his toughest imaginable test. 

"Well, you have to be on top of your game. You hope Andre has one of his bad days. I've played Andre a few times when he's had really bad days. I just hope he has one. 

"The number one thing is that you have got to serve well and you've got to do it well all day. If you can do that then you have a chance." 

Otherwise, it'll be deja vu all over again come Sunday with Center Court showing Pete versus Andre - the Sequel – (AFP) 

 

© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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