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Korda Silences Sampras by Taking the FifthBy Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 1997; Page D01
NEW YORK, Sept. 1 — This time, Pete Sampras was not nauseous or emotional or carrying some heavy personal burden. There was no virus that weakened his body, no trauma that tore at his heart. Today at the U.S. Open, Sampras was simply human. He was a human who made too many mistakes.
In a gritty, five-set match that included three rain delays and three tiebreakers, Sampras's supreme serve disappeared at the most crucial of times. His usually quick feet grew sluggish. His backhand fell in love with the net. It was a stunning performance for the world's top-ranked tennis player, who fell to No. 15 Petr Korda, 6-7 (7-4), 7-5, 7-6 (7-2), 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), in what was only a fourth-round match.
It was so stunning, in fact, that the instant after Korda served up his final winner, he slapped both hands to his head and let his mouth hang agape. It wasn't until a full minute later, Korda finally remembered to execute his trademark scissors kick of celebration. He had to recover from the shock first.
"I'm going to wake up tomorrow morning and I'm going to be disappointed," said Sampras, who won two Grand Slam events this year and the past two U.S. Opens. "I definitely wanted this title. It's the biggest one we have here in the United States."
A five-set loser to Sampras at Wimbledon earlier this summer, Korda now advances to the quarterfinals, where he will face unseeded Jonas Bjorkman in what is now a wide-open bracket. The power left in this tournament now appears to rest in the other side of the draw, where No. 2 Michael Chang and the unpredictable Andre Agassi have quickly become title favorites.
"It would be pretty tough for [Korda] to win it," Sampras predicted after his demise. "I probably see Agassi or Chang winning it now."
There is no such confusion in the women's draw, where four of the top seeds — No. 1 Martina Hingis, No. 3 Jana Novotna, No. 6 Lindsay Davenport and No. 10 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario — advanced with straight-set victories in fourth-round matches this afternoon. Hingis beat Florencia Labat, 6-0, 6-2, and has yet to drop a set at this tournament.
Like Hingis, Sampras strolled through the first week of this tournament, his performance at a peak level that made most think there was little chance he wouldn't claim his fifth Open title. At almost every Grand Slam, though, Sampras seems to have one match that turns into an epic — one match when he teeters on the brink of disaster, but rarely topples off.
"I've been in this situation a lot," Sampras said today, almost sighing, "and the majority of the time I've come through. But I'm not going to come through all the time."
There was sense that he would come through when the fifth-set tiebreaker started early this evening at Arthur Ashe Stadium. It seemed impossible that Sampras would not prevail this time, just as he had last year at the Open, when Alex Corretja took him through five draining sets and Sampras left his guts on the court — literally. Instead, the tiebreaker was most certainly a letdown: Sampras was quickly down 3-0 on three consecutive backhand errors, and he never got closer than 5-2. He double-faulted, of all things, to set up match point for Korda, who finished it off with a service winner.
"It was a long day with the rain and everything," said Sampras, who had 66 unforced errors, 19 in the fifth set. "When we were 5-all in the fifth I'm sure we were both feeling it, but I felt strong. I felt fine today."
The match was a roller-coaster, with Sampras's game varying widely from set to set and game to game. In the first set, he saved himself with four straight brilliant serves when Korda had triple set point, then saved himself again in the tiebreaker, when he trailed 2-4 before reeling off five straight points.
He destroyed himself with two double faults in the crucial 11th game of the second set, when Korda broke him to take a 6-5 lead, then served out the set. And in the third set, Sampras lost his backhand, and Korda took him apart in the tiebreaker — Sampras's only two points came on aces. "I just didn't put the clamps on him when I had him," Sampras said.
In the fourth set, the rains came in earnest, forcing a third, extensive break. Leading 1-0 but looking rather exhausted, Sampras packed his bags and headed for the players' locker room for a much-needed break.
He returned looking like a different player and pounded his way to a 6-3 fourth-set victory. Korda — a tall, bird-like man prone to showing emotion — seemed ruffled. And the next set started out no better for the Czech. Sampras's first serve of the first game was an ace. He held, and broke Korda in the next game with a backhand so spectacular that the normally sedate Sampras celebrated a la Jimmy Connors. And he started the next game with an ace as well. Ahead 3-0 early, Sampras looked ready to finish the nonsense. But Korda was not ready to let him do that.
Seizing on the backhand that had been his best weapon all day — the left-handed Korda paints the lines like a master — and suddenly serving up aces like he was, well, Sampras, Korda stormed back to win three straight games and tie the fifth set at 3-3.
"When he gets hot, there's nothing you can do," Sampras said. "He just raised his level from 3-1 in the fifth to the tiebreaker."
Both players held serve until the match advanced to the tiebreaker and then even Sampras was thinking about his marathon against Corretja last year. He won then when he was sick and nauseous and reeling over the recent death of his coach, Tim Gullikson. This time, though, he just couldn't survive.
"It reminded me of my match with Corretja," Sampras admitted. "I came from basically out of the match and ended up winning it and winning the tournament." Then he shrugged.
"Maybe what comes around, goes around," he said.