No time to waste for Sampras
It seemed as if Pete Sampras was in a hurry to follow in the footsteps of Patrick Rafter last night. A business-like Sampras, hardly pausing for breath between serves, swept Canada's Grant Connell off the court, winning 6-4, 6-2 to begin his campaign at the 1996 Marlboro Championships on an emphatic note. The American world number one finished his tie, which started at 7.30 pm, in 50 minutes. By that time Rafter had already booked his berth in Saturday's semi-final and had gone where most visitors to Hong Kong go - to the Happy Valley races.
World number three Thomas Muster of Austria came within spitting distance of losing to South African Neville Godwin in the last match of the night. He edged to a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 victory, a shaky start to his debut appearance in Hong Kong. Godwin broke Muster twice in the decisive set, but Muster was equal to the task and staved off the challenge with superb passing shots and lobs. Muster then celebrated his hard-fought win with a handstand. There is no question that Sampras will follow Rafter into the semi-final. But his emphatic victory over Connell, a performance steeped in concentration, suggested that he too was in a hurry to catch the horses at the Valley.
Or maybe it was just his professional approach. Hardly a smile crossed the face of the reigning US Open champion as the crowd 'oohed' when he made a series of errors at the net early in the first set. He just walked back to his mark and was ready to get on with the task at hand.
Sampras fired eight aces past the left-hander to win his first round-robin game in the Silver Group. One break of serve was enough to lift the first set in just 28 minutes. He finished the second set in even quicker time. 'It took a while to get used to the lights,' Sampras said afterwards. After assuring himself of a semi-final berth - the first player to do so - Australian Rafter went in search of big bucks at the races last night and chances are he did as old friend and compatriot Damien Oliver rode a winning double. The 23-year-old Rafter defeated American Michael Joyce 6-3, 6-4 to advance from the Red Group earlier in the day.
His berth in the semi-finals had been booked after Tuesday night's shock 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 victory over the seeded Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia. 'I enjoy playing in Hong Kong. This surface suits my game perfectly,' said Rafter.
It has been a dynamic start for the 56th-ranked Rafter.
He mixed it up perfectly against reigning French Open champion Kafelnikov, rushing to the net when the opportunity arose to lay the foundations for his victory. The third youngest in a family of eight, Rafter faced few problems against Joyce.
With his confidence soaring after Tuesday night's win, the man who was once dubbed the next 'Pat' of Australia (after 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash) was untroubled as he raced to a straight-sets victory. 'They have been saying that for the past three years . . . but nothing really has happened,' said Rafter, brushing off the hype.
Coached by former great Tony Roche, Rafter was certainly a prime candidate to become the next top Australian singles player.
But a wrist injury - which forced him out of the game last year for three months and saw his ranking slip from 20 to somewhere in the 70s - and the entry of Mark Philippoussis has quietened his supporters.