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Great American Insurance ATP Championships
August 10 - 16, 1998
by Vince Barr

The 1998 Great American Insurance ATP Championships, played annually near Cincinnati, Ohio, always draws an excellent field of men's professional tennis players and this year was no exception. The Great American is one of the Mercedes-Benz "Super Nine" tournaments on the worldwide ATP Tour. As such, it is virtually guaranteed a top field each year because there are no other "competing" tennis tournaments during the week it is played.

With nine of the top ten and 17 of the top 20 pros competing, spectators were guaranteed some compelling matches and they were not disappointed. There were many intriguing potential match-ups following Canada's du Maurier tournament in Toronto which was won by defending U.S. Open champion (and No. 5 seed in the Great American ATP) Patrick Rafter of Australia.

Andre Agassi, who had just beaten Pete Sampras in Canada but lost to finalist Richard Krajicek in Toronto, found himself in the most competitive portion of the draw with a possible rematch with Krajicek in the Round of 16 and a quarterfinal rematch with Mr. Sampras. Marcelo Rios, the new No. 1 player in the world, faced a relatively unobstructed path to the quarters where, if the seedings held, he would face Yvgeny Kafelnikov.

Although Patrick Rafter rode a five-match winning streak into Cincinnati, no one outside of ESPN commentator Fred Stolle was picking him to make any sort of run to the finals, especially with Goran Ivanisevic and Petr Korda in his quarter of the draw. The top eight seeds (Sampras, Rios, Korda, Ivanisevic, Rafter, Bjorkman, Kafelnikov & Krajicek) all received first-round byes while everyone else had to play.

There was some concern that Michael Chang might have to withdraw due to tendonitis in his right wrist (as he had done two weeks earlier in the semifinal round of the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, D.C.) but that did not occur. He was the sentimental favorite to win here although no one, himself included, expected him to get very far in this injury-plagued year. "To tell you the truth, I'm not looking ahead and just taking one match at a time," Chang said. Chang had the best record (34-8) in the Great American Insurance ATP Championship of any player competing this year. He was a four-time finalist from 1993-96, winning twice over Stefan Edberg in 1993 & 94 but losing twice to Andre Agassi in '95 & '96. His finalist streak was stopped last year in the semifinal round by Thomas Muster who then proceeded to lose to Pete Sampras in the title match.

Another concern was the play of 1997 defending titleist Pete Sampras who returned to the hard court season the previous week in Toronto. Originally, he had planned to play in front of family and friends in Los Angeles at the Mercedes-Benz Cup Tournament the week of July 27, but he had to withdraw following a longer than expected recovery from foot surgery to remove a plantar wart. Sampras had the surgery on July 15 and expected a five-day recovery but was unable to put any pressure on the foot until the week he was going to play in Los Angeles. His loss to Agassi came after having to play two matches on one day to get back on schedule following a rain out of his match with Tommy Haas.

Due to a scheduling quirk, Pete lost all of his points from his 1997 title before he had the chance to defend any of them. This resulted in Marcelo Rios regaining the No. 1 ranking on the ATP Tour computer. However, it quickly became apparent that Marcelo did not have the respect of his peers which normally goes with that ranking. Michael Chang commented that "....no disrespect to Marcelo, but if you're going to be No. 1, you've got to win a Grand Slam or else win every other (tournament) you enter." For his part, Pete was diplomatic about his fall to No. 2. "Marcelo has had a more consistent year than I have...but it's nice that everyone still considers me to be, you know, the man (to beat)," Sampras said.

Another story that developed over the course of the week here was the broadcast innovations the ATP Tour used to televise the tournament all over the world. There was a remote control "Go" camera behind the players along the baseline, which could travel at speeds of up to 40 mph, another camera suspended on wires 40 feet above the Stadium Court to provide unique overhead angles of play, cameras in the locker rooms, in player lounges and even on the umpire's chair. There was also a "Player Cam" that was used in pro practice sessions but not in competition play because the apparatus weighed 20 pounds and required the player to use special glasses with a tiny camera embedded in the bridge that gave the viewer a taste of what it was like to compete against the best tennis players in the world.

Five players in the Top 100 had to qualify to even get in the Great American Insurance ATP Championship: Jerome Golmard (67), Andrei Medvedev (69), Sargis Sargsian (85), Sebastien Grosjean (96) and Arnoud Clement (98). Sargsian had the dubious distinction of being the only qualifier in the Top 100 who failed to win his way into the main draw by losing in the first qualifying round 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 to Bob Bryan, who was ranked 488 and had just turned pro along with his twin brother (and doubles partner), Mike.

There were two excellent matches on the first day of competition which featured Alex O'Brien vs. Alex Corretja followed by Tommy Haas vs. Jim Courier. Corretja's match went three sets with the last two being decided in a tiebreaker. O'Brien received a wild card into the main draw and was ranked 124 but played like a pro in the Top Ten. Corretja finally prevailed in the match (which lasted over two hours) 6-3, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (7) and then faced Australian Scott Draper who beat him in the second round.

Jim Courier's match attracted a lot of attention since the former No. 1 player in the world had fallen to # 69 at the start of the tournament and hoped to break his series of first round losses in recent events. The match was very competitive but Courier seemingly did not have the fire he once had to win close matches and lost in two straight tiebreakers by a score of 3 and 5. His decline is somewhat puzzling in that he does not appear to be injured and has played well this year in Davis Cup, winning the deciding match in 5 sets last April over Marat Safin of Russia. During his loss the previous week to Scott Draper at the du Maurier, ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe thought that one of Jim's problems was in having to run around his weak backhand and that, although his training regimen was one of the toughest on tour, that having to do all that extra running takes it's toll on him in the match. Fred Stolle, another one of ESPN's tennis commentators, disagreed. Stolle thinks that Jim is simply having problems keeping up with the pace of today's game. When he was on top, he was outhitting everyone and now, there are 15-20 guys who hit as hard if not harder than he does.

Day Two's matches lead off with a rematch of last year's U.S. Open first round between Briton Tim Henman and Austria's Thomas Muster, who was the defending finalist here in 1997. At the U.S. Open match, Muster had playfully chased Henman off the court after Henman managed to retrieve an overhead lob that he returned for a winner. Muster took control of this match early with a break of Henman's service in the first game then held on to win 6-4, 7-5 as Henman played better in the second set. The best match was the one on Stadium Court which followed Muster's match and that was between Andre Agassi and Germany's Nicholas Kiefer.

Kiefer has patterned his game after Agassi and even copied Andre's wardrobe to match as they looked nearly identical from a distance. Many in the crowd wanted Kiefer to upset Agassi and he had several opportunities to do so with a couple of match points late in the second set before he lost in the tiebreaker to even the match at a set each. It seemed as though Andre was able to elevate his game just enough to come up with an ace or a service winner at critical times in the match. However, in the third set, Kiefer seemed to run out of gas and lost two service games as well as the match by a score of 6-4, 6-7 (3), 2-6.

The premier night match on day two gave fans an opportunity to see the newly crowned No. 1 player in the world, Marcelo Rios, face off against Daniel Vacek. Rios, who is notorious for his dislike of the media and has a disagreeable personality when it comes to interacting with fans and others, lost to Vacek 6-2, 3-6, 6-7 (8). The crowd was solidly behind the young Czech who had some difficulty closing out the match (blowing at least 4 match points) as Rios lost interest and even sarcastically raised his hands after he won a point to apparently encourage the fans who were cheering for Vacek.

Rios was also entered in the doubles draw with partner Petr Korda, who won the doubles title here in 1992 when teamed with Andre Agassi. Two days after losing in singles, Rios pulled out claiming tendonitis but looked much better the following day on the practice court with Jeff Tarango. A security guard confirmed that Rios had a lockerroom confrontation with Yvgeny Kafelnikov that required that they be separated. This was the real reason for his abrupt withdraw from his doubles match. There was some speculation that their argument started when Yvgeny made some biting comments about Rios not deserving the No. 1 ranking along with Rios conduct in his singles match with Vacek, Kafelnikov's doubles partner. In any event, no one was disappointed that Rios did not play another match during the tournament.

Day Three started with Todd Martin vs. Thomas Muster followed by Pete Sampras' first match of the tournament (vs. Martin Damm) followed by Yvgeny Kafelnikov vs. Michael Chang. Muster could not seem to find his serve and lost in straight sets (3 and 4) to an inspired Todd Martin, who enjoyed the support of the crowd. Sampras won in straight sets behind excellent serving and net court play and was never seriously threatened, winning 6-4, 6-2 in a match that was not as close as the score indicated. Pete began a string of 7 sets in which his serve was never broken. Chang fought tenaciously in his match with Kafelnikov, who had won their two previous meetings, but ultimately lost in three sets 3-6, 6-4, 4-6. Michael has had problems with severe cramping after his matches and could not even sit down for his press conference and was seen walking slowly around the perimeter of the stadium court for over an hour after his match ended.

The main night singles match of day three was between "journeyman" Vince Spadea and Andre Agassi. The interesting sidebar to that particular match was that it was the first time the two had faced each other since the Lipton Championships in March when Agassi applied the "journeyman" title to Spadea's career. When Andre made those comments, he pointed out that Spadea had never cracked the Top 50 and should do more in the game. At the time of their match, Vince was ranked 44 and managed to defeat Agassi by a score of 6-2, 0-6, 7-6 (2).

Day Four began with a battle of the baseliners, Goran Ivanisevic vs. Petr Korda for the first spot in the quarterfinals. This was followed by the first-ever match between America's present and future: Pete Sampras vs. Jan-Michael Gambill. The Ivanisevic - Korda match went the distance and involved excellent serving and net court play by both players. The crowd support went to Ivanisevic, who was more entertaining (and emotional) on court and had the sympathy factor from narrowly losing this year's Wimbledon finals to Pete Sampras in five sets. However, despite winning the first set 7-5, Goran proceeded to lose the next two sets 4-6, 5-7.

The first set of the Sampras / Gambill match was extremely close as neither player surrendered a service break. Pete later admitted that he had absolutely no idea where the ball was going in the first set but managed to figure it out as the match progressed. He complimented Gambill on his game and was asked if he had tried to acquire any psychological edge in his first meeting with the young American. Pete replied that he did nothing different than he normally does, which is basically go out and play and not worry about such things.

During Pete's match with Jan-Michael, an interesting subplot developed between Nike and Adidas. Gambill endorses Adidas apparel while Sampras is always seen in Nike attire. At 3-2 in the second set, Pete was serving at 40-30 on the ad court. Just as he was about to serve, some rhythmic clapping started from people seated at the Adidas box. Pete stopped his service motion and waited for the clapping to stop. Just as he was about to begin again, the clapping started. At this point, Pete was getting visibly irritated and glared in the direction of the people in the box. Then he began his service motion again and hit an ace right down the T where Gambill was completely unable to even get a racket on the ball. He then turned to the people in the box and shouted "How do you like that Swoosh, huh?" What is really interesting about that brief exchange was the fact that (1) Pete knew that the source of the noise came from individuals seated in Adidas' box. How did he know where their box was? Does he take the time to survey each box near the court where he's playing to find out who's seated where? And (2) Pete normally does not show much emotion when he's playing, so that was unusual. It proved to be only the beginning of a very emotional week where Mr. Sampras was concerned.

The quarterfinals finally got underway on day five of the tournament (August 14). The pairing had Thomas Johansson vs. Magnus Larsson, Yvgeny Kafelnikov vs. his doubles partner Daniel Vacek, Patrick Rafter vs. Petr Korda and the night session featured Pete Sampras vs. Vince Spadea. Larsson had a tough route to the quarters with his first match against fellow Sweede Jonas Bjorkman 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-3 and then took out Tommy Haas 6-4, 6-4. Johansson really put up a battle (especially in the second set) but Larsson won in the tiebreak 7-2.

Kafelnikov vs. Vacek was an interesting matchup since they were playing doubles together the whole week and had another match the same day they played against each other in singles. The crowd was kind of evenly divided. Kafelnikov was the more familiar name but Vacek did everyone a favor by dispatching Marcelo Rios in straight sets (3 & 2). Yvgeny beat his doubles partner 4 & 4 and one hour after their singles match, they were playing their doubles match against Justin Gimelstob & Todd Martin (they won that 4 & 1). Naturally, the media wanted the angle on how difficult it was to play together after their singles match and Kafelnikov said it was no problem. Apparently, after the match, they met in the lockerroom and talked about it. They discussed their singles match, shot selection and strategy and what each other was thinking, apparently as a means of getting better in the future. It was a very mature way of handling the situation.

Korda took three sets to beat Goran Ivanisevic in the Round of 16 and was probably somewhat fatigued from that match (5-7, 6-4, 7-5). Rafter battled through his match with Todd Martin in the Round of 16 and, despite losing the first set, prevailed 3-6, 6-3 6-2. Going into their match, Korda had a 3-1 edge in career meetings between the two with their last meeting in 1997 in Stuttgart. Patrick held his serve and broke Korda once in the first set and won the second in a rather dramatic tiebreaker that featured excellent shotmaking by both combatants (10-8 in the breaker). In the post-match press conference, he compared his previous record with Korda to his match with Krajicek in Toronto -- he went up against two guys who had beaten him the majority of times they have played each other and how that victory really confirmed to him that he was playing well.

Pete Sampras' match with Vince Spadea was not expected to cause much of a problem for Pete. Sampras won rather easily in straight sets 3 & 2. Spadea had written a series of articles in a local newspaper to give readers a sense of what it was like playing on Tour. He talked about what he did in his off time, where he went out to eat and how he flirted with women at the shopping mall who were trying to sell him some cologne. Vince gave himself the nickname the "Mall King" and the series was rather amusing. He generated some funny quotes, especially about the ladies he flirted with. All the top players were given complimentary Mercedes-Benzes to drive around town and Spadea remarked "Vincenzo in Benzo and I'm down with the ladies even though it's not the eighties."

The semifinal match between Rafter and Kafelnikov was a tale of two matches in one. Kafelnikov, like Petr Korda, also had a winning record against Rafter but that did not matter to Patrick who was looking to post his 9th consecutive win. Kafelnikov has admitted to a severe case of depression but would not reveal the source of it except to say that it was not caused by a relationship. Kafelnikov also said that he has decided that as long as Pete Sampras is playing tennis, he has no shot of ever becoming the No. 1 player in the world. Perhaps, Kafelnikov remembered how Sampras embarrassed him here last year en route to the title (in straight sets) in what was expected to be a very close match. Many tennis fans will recall how Pete simply destroyed the competition at Wimbledon in 1997 without dropping his serve for more than a couple of games during the entire fortnight. That success carried over to his match with Kafelnikov in Cincinnati last year.

Yvgeny's play has often been described as very moody, perhaps even more so that Goran Ivanisevic. He has had periods where he simply mentally checked out of a match and that happened in his match with Rafter. After narrowly losing the first set 7-5, Yvgeny proceeded to lose the second set 6-0. He seemed to lose interest and didn't even play to the level of a mediocre club player in that second set. Granted, Patrick picked up the intensity of his game, but Yvgeny seemed to be "elsewhere" during that match. He admitted to not having much of a game plan for his match with Rafter. This suggested that he was just going through the motions of playing and not preparing as he should for such a highly rated opponent.

The other semifinal pitted Pete Sampras against Magnus Larsson. Magnus had been playing well and his serve was consistently devastating. The two had not played each other since last November in Sweden in the finals of Davis Cup. Sampras had to retire from that match with a strained calf muscle. Luke Jensen talked to Pete after his match with Spadea and asked him about his match with Larsson. Pete explained that he expected a far tougher match than the one that Vince had just given him since "...he's been a consistent Top-50 player the last few years." He added that his previous comment was not a slam against Spadea and went on to explain that "...when Magnus gets his serve going, it's like coming down on you from a crane and it's tough to pick up."

Pete managed to break Magnus once in the first set to take it 7-5 but then ran into serious trouble in the second set. Larsson broke Sampras twice in winning the second set 6-2 and it looked as it the momentum had changed in Larsson's direction. the turning point came in the first game of the third set, Larsson serving at 15-40. Pete blocked the service return which Magnus drilled into the corner of the ad court. However, Sampras hit a low, wicked cross-court running forehand that Larsson was unable to reach to break Magnus' serve. That appeared to deeply discourage Larsson since he had been holding serve all night. Uncharacteristically, Pete pumped his fist several times and let out a loud "yeah" which really got the crowd fired up for Pete. Sampras broke Larsson twice more to take the third and decisive set by a score of 6-1.

The Great American Insurance final came down to Pete Sampras vs. Patrick Rafter. Perhaps this match was Rafter's toughest to mentally get past given their history. Rafter had not beaten Pete in five years. Last year, Patrick made some ill-advised comments after his U.S. Open win that he was aiming for the No. 1 ranking, which Pete regards as his personal property. Their most memorable match was in Washington, D.C. last September in the Davis Cup semifinals between the U.S. and Australia. After losing the first set in a tiebreaker, Pete absolutely schooled Mr. Rafter and beat him 6-1, 6-1 in sets number 2 and 3 in a combined total of 35 minutes. Australian Davis Cup captain John Newcombe remarked that he had never seen Sampras so intense, focused and concentrated as he did during that match.

Their next two meetings were not as close with Pete winning in straight sets at the Grand Slam Cup (right after their Davis Cup meeting) and at the year- ending ATP World Championships. This final started out the same way with Sampras jumping all over Rafter's serve and winning the set 6-1. Rafter was so unfocused and frustrated that he gave his racquet to a ball boy and took the ball boy's position on the court, which made the crowd laugh. He then changed tactics in the match and avoided Pete's backhand, which Sampras was hitting for winners all day long, and chose to attack his forehand, which had not been as consistent.

It worked. Pete lost the second set 6-4 as well as some of the crowd support as they started cheering for Rafter either because Patrick seemed to need their support more than Pete did or else, they just wanted to see a third set. Although Pete did have his chances to put Rafter away, there was a "no call" at 4-4, 30-40 (Rafter serving) which should have been a double fault and a break to Sampras. However, the line judge was screened and could not see where the serve landed but from my vantage point, the ball was clearly wide. Since the ball was hit on the far sideline, furthest away from chair umpire Lars Graff, he did not overrule and Rafter had an ace to bring the game back to deuce instead of having to face Pete with a break in hand, serving for the match. Sampras looked at the chair umpire, shook his head and walked away. Pete probably realized that he was not going to get a call and readied himself for the next point. Rafter then proceeded to win the game to go up 5-4 in the second set. Patrick then managed to break Sampras' serve to take the set in the following game.

The decisive third set played out much like the second with both players holding serve at 4-4. However, Pete was broken once and Patrick had only to serve out to win the match. But it looked as though Sampras increased his intensity, went up Love-30 and was going to even things at 5-5. But Rafter battled back to take a 40-30 lead and had one match point to win his second Mercedes Super Nine event of the year. Rafter served into the ad court which the lineswoman correctly called fault (wide and slightly long) but Lars overruled her thinking that the ball touched the line. At first, Pete threw his hands up in the air and expected to get a reversal of the call and looked at Graff, shaking his head. He stood in the ad court for some time, then slowly approached the net. He shook Rafter's hand and began to unleash a verbal fusillade toward the chair umpire which included some profanity. He heatedly argued the call to no avail. Game. Set. Match. Rafter. After getting nowhere with the argument, Pete sat down on his bench and was visibly upset. He threw the towel in his chair and stormed off into the locker room. It appeared as though Sampras was going to skip the awards presentation ceremony but he emerged from the locker room a few minutes later with a new shirt.

During the ceremony, he was talking to J. Wayne Richmond, the facilities Vice President of the ATP Tour. Pete gestured toward the court and presumably was seeking Richmond's opinion of the call. Richmond shook his head and, from what I could tell through binoculars, said it was too close to call or that he did not see the ball that well. Pete congratulated Rafter on the win and asked the crowd if we were in the United States, because for a minute there, he thought we were in Australia (the crowd consistently cheered for Rafter, which is not only unexplainable but inexcusable given the fact that Pete has always supported this tournament by returning every year and naming Cincinnati as one of his favorite places to play outside of the Grand Slams).

After pictures were taken and he was presented with the runner-up check for $190,000, Sampras set the check in the trophy and stormed off to the locker room. Later, a security guard gave him both of those things and told me that Pete was "turning the locker room blue" with his language and that he was extremely upset with the overrule. Pointedly, I might add, Sampras did not shake the umpire's hand at the end of the match. Graff also faced Sampras' ire earlier this year in the Australian Open when Pete lost to Karol Kucera in the 4th round and Sampras felt that several line calls were not correct.

With the win, Pete remained in the No. 2 position in the rankings as of August 17 with Rafter close behind at No. 3. The reporters wanted to know what John McEnroe would have done had he lost the match the same way Pete did and Sampras replied "...You would have had to call an ambulance...You guys (the media) think that I don't have any feelings out there and that's not the case...I only get upset when the calls are obvious and that should tell you how bad it (the call) was." Pete was then asked what was the difference between himself and Rafter since the match was so close and because there were not that many points separating the two players. Pete went for the kill and replied, "Ten Grand Slams." Rafter acknowledged that he "had quite a ways to go" to match Pete's record and that his goal was just to be a good tennis player, defend his title at the Open and go from there. Pointedly, there was no talk about him becoming No. 1. Earlier, Rafter congratulated Pete on playing well and told the crowd: "If we meet in the Open, I think I'm in a lot of trouble." Let's hope so, Patrick.


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