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Sampras Clinches It for U.S.

Tennis: He beats Rafter to secure Davis Cup semifinal victory over Australia. Chang also wins.


WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the United States Davis Cup team has the full participation and undivided attention of its best tennis players, it has this thing licked. The battle for the Americans is always to get their best players on the court.

Once committed, the players know what to do. Pete Sampras needed no instruction on how to handle Patrick Rafter in Sunday's decisive singles match. Sampras was well aware of the situation: With the U.S. holding a 2-1 lead over Australia in the Davis Cup semifinal, Sampras was to play No. 3 Rafter, the U.S. Open champion. If he won, the U.S. team would go to the final.

It was a pressure-filled scenario that Sampras very much likes. He responded in the manner that he usually does and defeated Rafter, 6-7 (6-8), 6-1, 6-1, 6-4.

In the second singles match that was reduced to best-of-three sets, Michael Chang defeated Mark Philippoussis, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-2), giving the United States a 4-1 victory over the Australians in front of 7,680 at FitzGerald Tennis Center.

No. 1 Sampras and No. 2 Chang have been part-time Davis Cup participants for the U.S. team, which relied on Jim Courier and assorted scrubs the first two rounds.

Because of scheduling conflicts and, in Sampras' case, "too much tennis," America's top tennis players cannot always be counted on to participate in their sport's oldest international competition.

When they do play, they do well. Sampras has a 13-5 singles record in Davis Cup competition and Chang is 8-2. U.S. Captain Tom Gullikson can only wonder how dominant his team might be if he had such players constantly answering his calls.

The United States will play Sweden in the final, Nov. 28-30 at Gothenburg, Sweden. The U.S. leads Sweden in Davis Cup play, 7-2. The two nations have played in one final, which the Swedes won in 1984. It is the fifth Davis Cup final for the U.S. this decade. The U.S. has won the Davis Cup title 31 times.

The last time the teams met was in the semifinals in 1994, also in Gothenburg. Sampras played and had to default from his second singles match with a leg injury. Sweden won and went on to defeat Russia in the final.

Sampras was in somewhat better form Sunday on a cold and cloudy day. Sampras called upon his serve to counter Rafter's potent volleying.

"I couldn't play any better," Sampras said. "I did everything that I could do very well. I served and returned well. If I can play at that level and that intensity, I feel like I am going to be pretty tough to beat."

Sampras started characteristically slowly, losing the first-set tiebreak. Australian Captain John Newcombe knew of Sampras' tendency to pick up steam as a match progresses and warned Rafter after the first set that Sampras would lift his game.

He did. Rafter won only 18 points against Sampras' serve during the 2 hour 19 minute match. Sampras never faced a break point.

In the second set, Sampras announced his intention by winning every point on his serve and making no unforced errors.

"Pete served too well today," Rafter said. "I played Pete a lot of times before and I've always had at least one chance to break him. But today I couldn't read his serve and just didn't pick the ball up. He was too good for me on the day."

Rafter said he had never seen Sampras as intense on a tennis court. One way Sampras displayed that intensity was through his trademark leaping smash, which he performed numerous times, to the delight of the appreciative crowd.

The U.S. team was fined $1,000 by the International Tennis Federation for Sampras' refusal to speak to the media after Saturday's doubles loss.

On Sunday, Sampras explained his absence by remarking that he had nothing to say, while Gullikson said Sampras was receiving treatment for a sore foot.

Sampras and Chang said they will be available to play in the final, if asked. Sampras defended his sporadic participation but said it isn't easy to let down Gullikson, a friend.

"His job as captain is to ask me to play pretty much every Davis Cup," Sampras said. "The first couple of rounds I didn't play this year. So it is not easy to tell a friend that you are not going to support the team."

Gullikson is grateful for being able to put together one of the best U.S. Davis Cup teams ever.

"I will take my chances against anybody with Michael and Pete, that's for sure," Gullikson said.

Davis Cup Notes

Sweden, the most successful Davis Cup nation the last two decades, is going back to the final for the second consecutive year.

The Swedes eliminated Italy when Jonas Bjorkman defeated Renzo Furlan, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, 6-4, at Norrkoping, Sweden. The reverse singles victory gave Sweden an unbeatable 3-1 lead in the series.

Thomas Enqvist overcame Omar Camporese, 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, in the last reverse singles, making the final score 4-1.

Sweden has made 11 finals since 1975 and won five.

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