Super Sampras rules in clash of the titans

PETE Sampras showed why he is the world's number one player with a momentous three-set triumph over second-ranked Jim Courier in a magnificent finale to the Salem Hongkong Open at Victoria Park yesterday.

Sampras, who took the world number one ranking off his fellow American Courier the previous week, relieved him of the Hongkong crown with a 6-3, 6-7 (1-7), 7-6 (7-2) victory in two hours and 51 minutes of top-quality tennis.

Both players received a standing ovation from a capacity crowd of 3,000 spectators as Sampras joined previous champions Pat Cash (1990), Richard Krajicek (1991) and Courier (1992) on the tournament's roll of honour.

Sampras, who improved his head-to-head record against Courier to 7-2, received a champion's cheque for HK$309,000 and told the Centre Court crowd: ''I'm going to take a bit of a holiday now - I would like to see you guys next year.'' And Courier, the top seed, added: ''I would like to congratulate Pete, not just on winning the tournament but for reaching the number one spot. Not many people get to the top so enjoy it.

''It's a lot more fun for us to play in a full stadium and it was an awfully good match. I hope everyone enjoyed it and I shall hope to be back next year and see you all again.'' Sampras, delighted and relieved to win the first tournament he entered since becoming the official number one on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour computer, was modest in victory.

''It was a matter of a couple of points here and there and it could have gone either way. I just got lucky and won the right points.

''When you play Jim Courier you have to take your game on to a different level.'' Sampras, winning his second successive tournament after victory in Tokyo the previous week, said he was taking a week off back home in Florida before starting his clay-court campaign in Atlanta from April 26, culminating in the second Grand Slam of the year - the French Open in Paris at the end of May.

''Being number one was a great accomplishment and I'm happy to have achieved that but the main thing for me is to win major titles. That is what people remember.'' Courier said his next tournament would be in Rome from May 10, two weeks before the French Open, which he won in 1991 and 1992.

''I will try and get in the best shape possible for the clay-court season so I will be ready for five-set matches in five hours if necessary,'' he said.

There was only one break point in the first set, which Sampras won with a typically elegant backhand down the line to lead 4-2. Sampras wrapped it up 6-3.

A positive and aggressive Courier then won all four points off the Sampras serve to take the second set tie-break 7-1.

With no let-up in the fierce rivalry, Courier hung on courageously as his serve came under threat but a series of stylish winners enabled Sampras to lead 6-2 in the tie-break.

And when Courier could only reach rather than return a 105 mile-per-hour Sampras serve, the epic contest was over.