Pete Sampras didn't look anything like himself at the start of his match against qualifier Wayne Black at the Australian Open this afternoon, slugging his way across the court with slumped shoulders and listless feet. He didn't begin to perk up until it was almost too late, but slowly, very slowly, his eyes began to sharpen and his legs began to move. By the time he finished, Sampras was back in such good form that even the scoreboard recognized him, announcing his 6-7 (11-9), 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 victory and progression into the fourth round.
"I was struggling to find my range--throughout the whole match I didn't feel I was hitting the ball real well," Sampras, the No. 3 seed, said. "But I just hung in there, and my serve kind of saved me, and I got some momentum going.
"It's hard to say what's going to happen in this tournament, but I'm still in it, which is the big thing."
Sampras's escape topped a busy day that also included wins for Anna Kournikova, Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce, who smoked Miriam Oremans, 6-2, 6-4, in just over an hour. But none of the women's matches were nearly as dramatic as what unfolded at Rod Laver Arena as a lethargic Sampras tried to overcome both Black and the slick court with a chip-and-charge style that does not play to his strengths.
Sampras was hitting ball after ball long, missing serves and scattering returns, and Black took advantage with gritty play and some well-angled shots.
Black had some extra motivation going into the match. Next month, he and his brother Byron will represent Zimbabwe against the United States in the first round of the Davis Cup. With Sampras and Andre Agassi playing for captain John McEnroe, the U.S. squad is heavily favored, but an upset here would have given Black and his team an enormous jolt of confidence.
Even as it turned out, Black gained a measure of respect with his play, especially in the first two sets as he continually forced Sampras to play from behind. The pair stayed on serve through the first set, and while Sampras had two set points in the tiebreaker, Black had three, converting to gain the advantage.
He whizzed his way through the second set, leaving the crowd stunned and Sampras shaking his head in his changeover chair.
"I definitely gave myself the best chance," Black said later, shaking his own head after Sampras had stormed back for the victory. "What can I say--I was playing one of the best players out there. I took my best chances, but he came up with the goods in the end."
Sampras started to get his shots under control in the third set, adjusting more to the quick surface the longer he stayed on the court, which has been recoated this year and has been playing very slick.
His serves improved too, and by the end of the match he had piled up 36 aces, which he believes is a personal record.
"It just shows you how fast the court is," Sampras said. "It sure helped me on the serve, but it also would have been nice to have a little more time to play from the back court. The surface is a real equalizer, no question about that."
Sampras said he believes the surface is playing even faster than the grass at Wimbledon, where he has won six times, although some other players who traditionally succeed at the All England Club have not done so well here. Goran Ivanisevic, a three-time Wimbledon finalist, was eliminated by Francisco Clavet on Thursday night, falling, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-2.
"That was the worst thing I ever played in my life," Ivanisevic said. "I don't know how to explain it--I was blocked. It was like I never played on the center court, like I never played a night match or like I never played a Grand Slam.
"It was like I came from the qualifying, the challengers, the satellites. I really don't know what I was doing there."
Ivanisevic had been hoping to regain his form here after a horrible 1999 season that saw him end the year ranked No. 62. It was the first time he had fallen out of the top 20 in a decade, and he came here believing that things had to get better.
They did, briefly, as he upset No. 13 seed Cedric Pioline in the first round, but Thursday night he could never get his game together, spraying balls everywhere but onto Clavet's side of the court. He said he isn't sure how he's going to snap out of this malaise--"I don't know--maybe I should take some drugs," he said.
Black doesn't intend to resort to that; he believes today's match has given him enough confidence to beat Sampras when they play again at the Davis Cup.
"It's going to be on home turf in a few weeks, and we're going to give 100 percent again," he said. "We've pulled up some surprises at home in Davis Cup, and we definitely believe we can do it again."
When: Through Jan. 30.
Where: Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia.
TV: ESPN, ESPN2.
Thursday's results: Men--Yevgeny Kafelnikov (2), Russia, def. Daniel Vacek, Czech Republic, 6-3, 6-0, 6-1; Nicolas Kiefer (4), Germany, def. Tomas Behrend, Germany, 7-6 (7-5), 6-0, 6-2.
Women--Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, def. Justine Henin, Belgium, 6-3, 6-3; Serena Williams (3), United States, def. Nicole Pratt, Australia, 7-5, 6-1; Kristina Brandi, United States, def. Amanda Coetzer (8), South Africa, 6-1, 6-3.