For Pete Sampras, the frustrating quest to win the last Grand Slam that has eluded him will have to wait another year. The world’s No. 1 player succumbed to heat, exhaustion and the blistering firepower of a Russian aptly nicknamed “Kalashnikov” Friday as he failed to reach the finals of the French Open for the seventh time in a row.
Playing as if he did not have a care in the world, 22-year-old Yevgeny Kafelnikov blithely disposed of Sampras in straight sets 7-6, 6-0, 6-2 for the right to play Germany’s Michael Stich in the finals Sunday. Earlier, Stich easily outclassed Switzerland’s Marc Rosset for a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
After a tense first set that he barely salvaged in a tiebreak, the sixth-seeded Kafelnikov could scarcely believe his good fortune as he watched Sampras dissolve in the 95-degree heat. The Russian reeled off a shutout and then closed out what had become a boring mismatch as a befuddled Sampras stumbled toward nine double faults and 34 unforced errors.
“It was not the same Pete we are used to seeing out there,” Kafelnikov said. “I noticed something was happening to him right after the first set. This is the greatest victory of my career. I’m not sure I could have pulled this out if he had a better day.”
Sampras entered this year’s French motivated by a desire to win to honor the memory of his coach and mentor, Tim Gullikson, who died recently of a brain tumor. But he was saddled with an exceedingly difficult draw that forced him to struggle through five-set marathons in the early rounds against Todd Martin and two former champions, Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier.
Even after a two-day break to refresh himself ahead of the semifinal match, Sampras said the accumulation of mental and physical stress from the past few weeks finally dragged him down.
“After the first set, I think the balloon just popped. I came in here not exactly in the best shape of my life. The heat and the long matches in previous rounds made me feel so tired that I was just running on fumes at the end. I felt heavy and could barely catch my breath.
“Normally, this kind of heat should help my serve. But I found the ball was sailing and my rackets felt soft. It was almost like playing at high altitude.
“Right now I just want to get away, hang up my racket for a while and start preparing for Wimbledon. I’m disappointed that I came so close this year after beating some real good players in emotional matches.”
The premature departure of Andre Agassi, defending champion Thomas Muster and Sampras will leave two of the tour’s more pleasant but least charismatic players squaring off at center court.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WOMEN’S FINAL TODAY Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario meet today (9 a.m., NBC) in the final of the French Open for the third time. It’s a replay of last year’s French Open finals, the 1995 Wimbledon final and the 1994 U.S. and Australian open finals. Despite the return of Monica Seles and Sanchez Vicario’s drop in the rankings below Conchita Martinez, it’s no surprise that the final is the same as last year’s. Graf, seeded co-No. 1 with Seles, holds a 26-8 career edge over Sanchez Vicario and has taken 18 Grand Slams, compared to the Spaniard’s three. Graf won both the Wimbledon and French open championships over Sanchez Vicario in 1995. Sanchez Vicario’s top success has been at the French Open, winning the title twice and beating Graf, once in the 1989 final and the 1991 semifinal. Associated Press
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