Sampras, Courier in world showdown
HONGKONG'S Victoria Park will be the focal point of the tennis world today when the two leading players on the international circuit, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, clash in the final of the sell-out Salem Open.
Courier, who lost his world number one ranking to Sampras last week, stayed on course to defend his Hongkong title by thrashing third-seeded compatriot Michael Chang 6-2, 6-3 in the first semi-final yesterday.
And Sampras, seeded second behind Courier in Hongkong, joined him in the final after battling back from a set down to beat fourth-seeded Israeli Amos Mansdorf 2-6, 7-6 (7-1), 7-6 (7-3) in a see-saw match lasting two hours and three minutes.
It all adds up to one of the glamour days on the Hongkong sporting calendar, with world number two Courier desperate to prove the computer wrong and beat Sampras in his first tournament since becoming the world's official number one player.
Although today's winner will receive a cheque for US$39,600 and the runner-up US$23,330, the number one ranking will not be affected.
After his victory in Tokyo last week, Sampras moved on to 3,736 points, 173 more than Courier, who is second on 3,563. The winner of today's final will receive 120 points and the runner-up 90 points.
And the final promises to be a cracker. Sampras will start as favourite because of his head-to-head record against Courier, having won six of their previous eight meetings in official ranking tournaments.
Their most recent match was in the US Open semi-finals last September, when Sampras won in four sets.
But Courier has been in marvellous form all week, beating Japan's Shuzo Matsuoka, Britain's Jeremy Bates and fellow Americans Patrick McEnroe and Chang without dropping a set.
Sampras has had a tougher draw, with straight-sets victories over Frenchman Stephane Simian, Germany's David Prinosil and American David Wheaton before yesterday's semi-final against Mansdorf, who had beaten Courier in Osaka two weeks earlier.
The 21-year-old Florida-based Sampras said: ''Courier is hitting the ball really well and he beat Michael Chang very easily in his semi-final. He enjoys that court and we always have good matches anyway, so this one won't be any different.'' Sampras said he was feeling ''a little mentally tired'' after two long months of tennis in gaining the number one spot from 22-year-old Courier but added: ''I will approach the final telling myself this is my last match before I have a holiday, so I will give it everything I've got, soak it up and try my best.
''As for the number one thing, I'm going to go out there and play another tennis match and try and win.'' Courier, positive and commanding on court, has been sullen and sombre off court.
After his ruthless victory over Chang yesterday, Courier would merely say: ''I'm playing very well, a bit better than Japan,'' referring to his surprise defeat by Jonathan Stark in Tokyo and by Mansdorf in Osaka.
''It's never easy against Michael Chang, no matter what the score is.'' At last year's event, Courier was the life and soul of the party, joining in the charity auction and looking relaxed and confident off court.
When asked why there was a change in mood from last year to this, he replied: ''Things change. Last year is a long time ago.'' Courier did not hang around to watch the Sampras-Mansdorf tie, returning to the hotel after his customary winding-down jog around Victoria Park.
But he would have seen an uncharacteristic Sampras lose the first set 6-2 in 27 minutes. Clearly affected by an early break for rain, Sampras returned looking sluggish about court and lacking in concentration.
A succession of loose shots meant that Mansdorf did not have to work too hard for the opening set.
Sampras only started to fire in the second-set tie-break, which he won 7-1 to level the match.
At one point in the second set, Sampras grabbed a drink from a courtside spectator and had a mouthful to try and ease the pressure.
''The drink woke me up a bit,'' said Sampras.
''I was getting a bit frustrated and lost my cool. The week had been going pretty smoothly up until today.'' See Page 14