NEW YORK, SEPT. 7 -- The U.S. Open men's draw has been reduced to John McEnroe and Others. McEnroe's semifinal opponent, a fresh-faced rising star named Pete Sampras, may never again have a crowd as vociferously against him as this one will be late Saturday afternoon.

Rarely does a match between the tournament's 12th-seeded player -- Sampras, who is in his first Grand Slam semifinal -- and an unseeded opponent generate more interest than the women's final that will precede it or a men's semifinal between two such high-profile players as Boris Becker, the defending champion, and Andre Agassi.

The first semifinal, scheduled for 11 a.m., will begin a marathon afternoon of tennis at Louis Armstrong Stadium, providing more than enough preliminary activity leading up the the main event.

This tournament, which "seemed to be the beginning of the end for McEnroe," as quarterfinal victim David Wheaton described it, has turned into a giant celebration for the rejuvenated former No. 1. "I made it a point not to expect anything at the beginning," McEnroe said earlier this week, "but now that I'm playing Sampras for the final, I can't ask for anything more than that."

The people who will pay scalpers $500 per ticket to get into the National Tennis Center might ask for more. "James Brown has reappeared at the Apollo," said CBS analyst Mary Carillo, McEnroe's former mixed-doubles partner.

McEnroe acknowledged earlier this week: "I can now start to see it coming." What others have seen is the precision serving, the sharp-angled volleys, the renewed respect from opponents, most of whom had dismissed him as just another player for the past four years.

Sampras certainly had that feeling five weeks ago in Toronto when he beat McEnroe in three sets. McEnroe, when he decided to make one last comeback attempt, knew he would have to take some losses to players he would have had for lunch five years ago, and one of those losses was to Sampras.

McEnroe hasn't scored any stunning upsets here, although he did beat 10th-seeded Andrei Chesnokov and seventh-seeded Emilio Sanchez. But top-seeded Stefan Edberg and third-seeded Ivan Lendl lost in McEnroe's half of the draw, making his passage into the semifinal somewhat easier.

People who think McEnroe will handle Sampras, however, are unfamiliar with the 19-year-old's 120-mph serve and sharp volleys. There are those who think Sampras, not Agassi, has the game to become the next great American player.

Agassi, the fourth seed, has cruised through the tournament so far, losing only one set -- in his second-round match. Since then, he has recorded at least one whitewash (6-0) in three matches. He also hasn't been greatly challenged, his most noteworthy opponent being No. 13-seed Jay Berger in the fourth round.

Agassi is 1-3 in his career against Becker, but he won the last match, which seems to have irritated Becker a bit. "I played bad. There's no need to talk about it," an uncharacteristically curt Becker said earlier in the week. Agassi doesn't see that one victory (which came in straight sets in Indian Wells, Calif., in March) as a fluke.

"I think the difference was that last time I was a lot stronger this year and people tend to forget that as I go in to play Boris here," Agassi said. "Before, I gave him tough matches, but I wasn't able to physically stay with his kind of power, the service return and the groundstrokes. But this year, I'm so much stronger {the result of an intense training program}. . . . I feel pretty good about how things might turn out."

Agassi, brash as he is, hasn't won a Grand Slam tournament and has only reached one final (the '90 French, where he lost to Andres Gomez). This is his third straight U.S. Open semifinal, but he failed to distinguish himself in the previous two trips. The time is coming when Agassi, 20, will have to put up or shut up, considering that McEnroe and Becker had made their marks in Grand Slam events by the time they were his age.