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On the Surface, U.S. Is Fine

Davis Cup: With Sampras playing on his beloved grass, Spain is a decided underdog.

April 05, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — Ninety-nine times Pete Sampras has emerged victorious on grass as a professional, which includes winning Wimbledon seven times.

Of those 99 matches, how many have been played in the United States?

None.

Strange, but true.

The leading grass-court player of all time finally is able to take his show off the foreign road, starting here today in the Davis Cup quarterfinals against Spain. Sampras will play Alex Corretja in the second singles match, after teammate Andy Roddick's opener against Davis Cup rookie Tommy Robredo at Westside Tennis Club.

"Of course I know he has the advantage because he's been playing like hundreds of matches on grass and I probably play like eight or 10 in my whole life," Corretja said.

What is viewed as a revenge match on grass against Spain--which beat the United States, 5-0, on clay in the semifinals in 2000 at Santander, Spain--also could end up reviving Sampras' year.

His aura and confidence took a big hit last month in Miami when he was dispatched in straight sets in the third round by Chilean qualifier Fernando Gonzalez.

U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe has noticed a difference in Sampras since he hit the grass courts. After all, surface matters.

"Obviously he played a terrible match in Miami, which he would be the first to admit," McEnroe said. "He went back and worked a few hard days with [Jose] Higueras and came here with a great attitude. He's been working hard in practice. We've been doing drills with him on the court, which was foreign to him for a long time. Grass obviously makes him feel real comfortable.

"When he serves and volleys, his awareness level is a little higher, which I didn't see in Miami. I saw him serving and coming in and not really being that intense. He knows on grass you've got to serve, come in and be ready to go, be ready to jump."

McEnroe and his assistant, Jim Courier, watched Sampras practice on the grass this week and marveled at his athleticism.

"To me, he's still one of the couple of favorites at Wimbledon," McEnroe said. "The way I see him in practice is good enough to win an Open. It's a question of week in, week out, of doing it on the tour and doing it in his matches."

Sampras declared the court to be in good shape, noting that the USTA brought over the man in charge of the grounds at Queen's Club in London. He said the bounces were true, and the balls were slightly lighter and softer than the ones used at Wimbledon.

"I think the grass is pretty identical [to Wimbledon]," he said. "I don't know how the other guys feel, but I think it's playing very true. Not too many bad bounces out there. I think it's one of the best grass courts we have in this country."

Said Corretja: "Right now, we don't have any grass courts in Spain. We feel proud the U.S. team chose to play on grass. Because they show some respect and they kind of feel they need to play on our worst surface to beat us."

About a year and a half ago, the situation was reversed. But the Americans weren't using the word "respect" when the Spaniards selected clay for their semifinal match. Andre Agassi and Sampras were injured and stayed home, and ultimately, the U.S. was shut down and shut out. It was John McEnroe's last appearance as captain.

This time, the McEnroe family will be ably represented by Patrick.

"I spoke to him a couple of days ago and [John] was certainly pulling for us and anxious for us to do well," Patrick said. "He didn't have the greatest time over there two years ago. He certainly was real supportive and hoping that we do to them what they did to us."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Facts

* What: Davis Cup quarterfinals, United States vs. Spain.

* Where: Westside Tennis Club, Houston. Capacity, 5,912.

* When: Today through Sunday.

* Who: Today, Andy Roddick vs. Tommy Robredo, Pete Sampras vs. Alex Corretja; Saturday, James Blake-Todd Martin vs. Corretja-Juan Balcells; Sunday, Roddick vs. Corretja, Sampras vs. Robredo. (U.S. players listed first.) Captains: Patrick McEnroe, Jordi Aresse.

* Surface: Outdoor grass court.

* TV: Today, noon, ESPN; Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN; Sunday, ESPN, noon.

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