Sampras back on top after Open win

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 April, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 April, 1996, 12:00am

American Pete Sampras returned to the top of the ATP world rankings at Victoria Park yesterday, though the achievement filled him with only a fraction of joy.

Beating crowd favourite Michael Chang 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the US$328,000 Salem Hong Kong Open final meant much more than his ascension to the top, where he replaces Austrian Thomas Muster.

American-Chinese Chang has been invincible in his home away from home since a 1993 semi-final loss to Jim Courier, winning the Hong Kong title for the past two years.

Sampras has now ended that great run, setting off on his 117th non-consecutive week as the world's number one player by competing in the Japan Open in Tokyo.

'Winning the tournament is more important than the ranking,' said Sampras, who raised his arms in triumph after the 122-minute tussle following a flurry of shots at the net which saw Chang balloon a mid-court volley on match point.

'We played a very high level of tennis for most of the match and it felt really good beating him here,' said Sampras, 24, who is assured of the number one spot irrespective of how Muster performs in the Estoril final.

'When you play him here, you definitely know that the crowd are rooting for him. But you expect it when you play here and you have to shut it out as much as possible.' Three-time Wimbledon champion Sampras has maintained that the year-end rankings offer a more accurate picture of who has had the best 12 months and deserves to be regarded as the world's leading player.

With the top-spot tucked away in his pocket, Sampras is hoping to keep it there with the intention of flaunting it on December 31, 1996.

'As I've said before, it's the rankings at the end of the year that count,' said Sampras, who earned US$43,000 for the victory. 'But it's nice to get it here and hopefully I can stay at the top for as long as possible.' Through a complex points system, Sampras, who first became number one after Tokyo in 1993 just prior to winning his first Hong Kong title, will be more than 200 points ahead of Muster when the rankings come out today.

Muster, who was previously 72 ahead of Sampras, loses 359 points he earned from Barcelona last year, which this year is being held a week late.

He also loses 109 points, which drops off from 14 tournaments ago, the cycle around which the rankings are based.

He will earn 150, plus bonus points, if he wins in Estoril.

Sampras sees only 109 points drop off from his total, but he has earned 230, including bonus points, by winning in Hong Kong.

World number four Chang, the 1989 French Open champion and this year's Australian Open finalist, was far from downhearted after his defeat.

Instead, he leaves the territory with his resolve strengthened.

'We played some pretty good tennis out there and it was only a matter of a couple of points,' said Chang, who won US$25,300.

'I don't feel I have anything to be disappointed about. I can take some really good things from this match and use it in my approach to future matches.

'I realised by playing the best in the world that I have the capability of beating him,' said Chang, who suffered his 10th defeat to Sampras in 17 meetings.

'I don't think I'm all that far behind. I think the other top guys feel that as well.' When asked if he had a time frame for eventually becoming number one, Chang said: 'There is still a lot of hard work to do. You can't think about number one and not put in the hard work.

'Time frame for me was thrown out the window when I won the French in 1989. I didn't think I would win it at that age.

'I want to do well in the big tournaments like the Grand Slams. Hopefully that will take me to the next step.' Sampras hammered 14 aces on his way to victory, but admitted to being caught off-guard by Chang in the second set, with the tenacious Chang adding more bite to his second serve.

A single break was enough to see Sampras through the first set, but Chang responded by breaking his opponent to love in the sixth game of the second set.

Chang then fought off five break points in the next game to maintain his break advantage and level the score.

Chang had three aces in the sixth game of the decider to save break again, but Sampras clinched the match in the final game, taking his opponent on at the net at match-point before Chang hit a mid-court volley well past the base-line.