INDIAN WELLS — Pete Sampras was huddled in his courtside chair with a towel hanging over his head on changeovers, hiding out from the chilling desert winds with gusts up to 30 mph.
This hardly would appear to be the place for Sampras to pull himself together. For years, he joked about the desert curse. Ordinarily, the cold, the desert and the wind would combine for a hat trick of doom.
Instead, Sampras turned in his best result since reaching the U.S. Open final in September. He defeated Rainer Schuettler of Germany, 6-2, 6-4, in the quarterfinals of the Pacific Life Open on Friday night at the Tennis Garden, producing some sharp groundstrokes designed to please his new coach Jose Higueras for a few minutes.
In today's semifinals, the 10th-seeded Sampras will face the player who defeated him in the Open final, No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia. Hewitt and Sampras are 4-4. In the other semifinal, No. 9 Tim Henman of Great Britain meets 31-year-old Todd Martin, a wild-card entrant. Martin, who upset No. 2 Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia, 7-6 (5), 6-3, in the quarterfinals, is 3-3 against Henman.
Hewitt, Martin and Henman played during the day. Sampras might as well have been in another tournament with the evening temperatures falling below 60 degrees. His serve was broken once, late in the second set, but he saved six break points.
"Very cold," Sampras said. "It reminded me of playing Hamburg a bunch of years ago when it was cold and windy. It was pretty nasty out there. We were both struggling. Under the circumstances, I felt like I hit the ball very well and moved very well."
Hewitt presents a vastly different challenge. Sampras felt he came in to the net too often at the U.S. Open and needs to pick his spots, saying Hewitt is "oozing with confidence right now.
"He's playing the best tennis probably right now," Sampras said. "He's serving well and we all know about his return of serve, passing shots and his wheels."
Earlier, ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale said Hewitt had the walk of invincibility, but Hewitt, though on a nine-match winning streak, wasn't buying it. Drysdale's words came when Hewitt was making a good player, Thomas Enqvist of Sweden, look rather ordinary in their quarterfinal, winning, 6-4, 6-4.
"A bit silly maybe," Hewitt said of the concept.
Maybe he couldn't envision the way the walk would look. Arrogant, perhaps?
But Hewitt, who is 32-4 since the start of the U.S. Open, doesn't display arrogance after his matches. Nor do Martin and Henman. Hewitt speaks about taking it "one match at a time." Martin won't even promote his own cause for the U.S. Davis Cup team.
As for Henman, Martin issued genuine, extensive praise about his semifinal opponent, saying the Briton was one of his favorite guys on the tour.
Welcome to the self-effacing semifinals.
Henman advanced after a ragged start, defeating Gaston Gaudio of Argentina, 6-3, 6-2, and Martin beat Kafelnikov for just the third time in 10 matches.
Martin was two for two on break-point opportunities, and saved 10 of 11 break points. The way he's playing, it is hard to believe he needed a wild card.
"I called up and begged," Martin said. "Fortunately, I was able to sneak in ahead of one of the young guys who would also have been a prospective wild-card candidate. I'll be sending Christmas cards to both of them for a long time."
Kafelnikov thought he played better than Martin, and Martin agreed.
"I did a little post-match interview on the court, and I said the same thing," Martin said. "I think Yevgeny probably did outplay me. [But] during those critical moments, he didn't outplay me."
Of the semifinalists, Hewitt looked the most in control. His only out-of-control moment was when his forehand bounced off the net post and hit a 13-year-old ball girl in the face. A concerned Hewitt asked her how she was and later met her in the players' lounge.
"She looked like she had a delayed reaction a little bit," Hewitt said. "First off, it had hit her. I don't think she realized what had quite happened, then she probably felt the pain. I just asked her a couple of times if she was all right. She said yes a couple of times.
"I think she was trying to hold back the tears on national TV."
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Pacific Life Open
At Indian Wells Tennis Garden:
* Tim Henman (England) def. Gaston Gaudio (Argentina), 6-3, 6-2
* Lleyton Hewitt (Australia) def. Thomas Enqvist (Sweden), 6-4, 6-4
* Todd Martin def. Yevgeny Kafelnikov (Russia), 7-6 (5), 6-3
* Pete Sampras def. Rainer Schuettler (Germany), 6-2, 6-4
* Sampras vs. Hewitt followed by Henman vs. Martin.
* TV: Noon, ESPN.