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Sampras still serves a treat

Dispatches Martin after sluggish start
By Melissa Isaacson, Chicago Tribune

December 2, 2007 - Todd Martin did not particularly care for the "exhibition" part. Playing Pete Sampras before a crowd of more than 4,000 Saturday night at the UIC Pavilion in the FedEx Shootout Chicago, the former Northwestern star knew he would get all he could handle.

Sampras, 36, arrived in Chicago fresh off an exhibition victory over Roger Federer in the third of three matches in China, a 7-6, 6-4 win that prompted the world's No. 1-ranked player to say Sampras would be in the top five if he were still playing.

Having flown into Chicago during Saturday's nasty weather, Sampras was less than sharp at the outset, but he regained form in time to beat Martin 2-6, 6-2 and 10-2 in a third-set tiebreak.

"The court was so fast," said Sampras, shaking his head. "It took me a little while [to adjust]."

Downplaying his victory over Federer, Sampras acknowledged he was hitting the ball better than ever thanks to the newest racket technology. On a night fit for staying home, an enthusiastic group of hearty tennis fans braved the weather to watch the former pros, now each the father of two.

After exhibitions between junior and wheelchair players and a six-game set between former Illinois greats Amer Delic and Kevin Anderson, Sampras and Martin took the court.

"It was a relatively shaky match," Martin said as he thanked the crowd.

Martin was noticeably fresher at the start, breaking Sampras' serve in the first and third games. He took a 5-1 lead and won the first set 6-2 as Sampras repeatedly sprayed his groundstrokes long and wide.

"I was surprised he struggled at the beginning," said Martin, who smiled and added: "He played three matches last week at conditions that I thought would prepare him."

Martin had been wary as always of Sampras' serve, which was clocked up to 130 m.p.h. against Federer and which Martin said would still rank among the best in the game. After the slow start, Sampras, while perhaps not up to that caliber, regained momentum and held for a 3-0 lead to start the second set.

At 3-1 and 40-0, Martin waved at Sampras' serve with a sarcastic shrug, and Sampras closed out the second set 6-2. Martin conceded the fast service but added: "With better players, the tennis improves as they get more comfortable. Pete dictates every point and I like to defend, which makes for an interesting match. Years ago I could impose myself a little more."

Martin said Sampras' second-set serve was up to the caliber he described as "top five."

"For sure," he said, "but it's the accuracy that kills you."

Sampras, inducted last summer into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, retired at the end of 2002 holding a record 14 Grand Slam titles, including seven at Wimbledon, and 64 singles titles.

Both players have been active on the Outback Championship Series, a top-level 30-and-older circuit. promoted by their former contemporary, Jim Courier. Talking about Sampras' victory over Federer, Martin rejected the notion that players give less than an honest effort in exhibitions.

"You have to have fun," Martin said. "It is a different animal than a tournament. But at the same time, especially when it's televised, you want everyone watching to know you're the better one."

Chicago Tribune
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