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Sampras of old presses onward
NEW YORK -- Pete Sampras wasn't perfect: He double-faulted, blew two easy volleys and dumped an overhead into the net.
And that was just in the first game.
But for the most part on Saturday, Sampras played like the Pete of old, dominating with his serve and blanketing the net to beat Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 and reach the fourth round at the U.S. Open.
The performance suggested Sampras may be ready to make a run next week at his fifth Open title -- and his first tournament title since Wimbledon last year.
"Everything is in place," he said. "I'm very hungry. I'm mentally fine. I'm physically fine. Everything is in one piece. I can't complain about the way the first week has gone."
Sampras came into the tournament mired in a yearlong slump and saddled with a No. 10 seeding, his lowest since winning the first of his record 13 Grand Slam titles at the 1990 Open.
But through three rounds he has yet to drop a set, winning three tiebreakers, and he was particularly polished against Youzhny. Sampras lost only seven points on his first serve, never faced a break point and won 52 points at the net.
"The entire tennis world was waiting for a statement from Pete Sampras," U.S. Davis Cup captain Pat McEnroe said. "I think we got that statement today. It was a very impressive performance."
The road turns tougher next week. Sampras' likely opponent Monday will be two-time champion Pat Rafter, who was scheduled to play a third-round match Saturday night against Nicolas Lapentti. The Sampras-Rafter winner would likely next face two-time champ Andre Agassi, who also won Saturday.
"I'm going to have my hands full," Sampras said. "It's a tough section of the draw for all of us. There are a lot of U.S. Open titles in that little section, but that's the way the draw went, and let's play it."
Agassi had the same attitude.
"You've got to beat the best to win here," he said. "Sometimes you play the best before the final."
The No. 2-seeded Agassi advanced by beating qualifier Ramon Delgado 7-5, 7-6 (5), 6-3. His next opponent will be No. 13 Roger Federer, who ended Sampras' reign at Wimbledon two months ago.
Defending champion Marat Safin, seeded third, beat Hicham Arazi 7-5, 6-4, 7-6 (5).
The expanded seeding system protected the top players in the early rounds, just as intended, and the tournament remained mostly upset-free Saturday.
The seven top-seeded men and the 11 top women were still alive, but one prominent casualty was No. 9 Tim Henman, who blew a 3-0 lead in the fifth set and lost to Xavier Malisse 6-7 (6), 6-3, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4. The match carried extra meaning for both players because Malisse hired Henman's coach, David Felgate, earlier this year.
"I did what David told me to do -- not always, but I tried to," Malisse said.
On the women's side, defending champion Venus Williams, seeded fourth, beat Lisa Raymond 6-3, 6-4 but was unhappy with her serve.
"It seems I never play as well as I want to in the early rounds, but I just seem to get better in the later rounds," Williams said. "My hope is that will be the trend at this tournament also."
No. 2 Jennifer Capriati fell behind 4-1 and committed 34 unforced errors but rallied to beat Virginia Ruano Pascual 6-4, 6-4. No. 5 Kim Clijsters, No. 8 Amelie Mauresmo, No. 9 Nathalie Tauziat and No. 11 Elena Dementieva also won.
Saturday's two sessions drew 55,111 fans, an Open record, and they enjoyed the best weather yet this week -- mostly clear and mild, with the first hint of autumn in the breeze.
The conditions seemed to put extra spring into Sampras' 30-year-old legs. Because the wind played havoc with lobs and passing shots, he charged to the net behind every serve and many of his service returns, and Youzhny crumpled under the pressure.
"I decided I'm just going to come in until the cows come home," Sampras said.
He won't be able to do that if he plays Rafter, who like Sampras plays a serve-and-volley game that keeps opponents on the defensive. Sampras swept their past three meetings to take an 11-4 lead in the rivalry, but Rafter won their most recent U.S. Open match, which came in the 1998 semifinals.
"He's probably the hottest player coming into this year's Open," Sampras said. "Hopefully I can bring my A game and play well."