NEW YORK -- Pete Sampras looks so strong now, stretching for the power serve, dominating little guys like Byron Black, yesterday's opponent in the men's quarterfinals. He looks so finely tuned, gliding side to side, almost effortlessly, for a running forehand passing shot or a backhand cross-court winner.
This U.S. Open appears to be within his grasp, just two matches away, after he punished Black, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, 6-0, while serving 22 aces, including the final one on match point at 128 mph, to move into the semifinals. He will meet No. 14 seed Jim Courier, who upset No. 5 Michael Chang in a tense three-setter, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-3), 7-5.
"After I won the first two sets," Sampras said, "I saw no reason to fool around. I just wanted to try to stay on top of him. That last set was the best set I've played in the entire tournament."
A year ago, the last set Sampras played in the U.S. Open was not so perfect, but it is perhaps the most memorable one he has ever played at the Open. He was playing that day in the fourth round against Jaime Yzaga, a man he could not lose to, but a player he would lose to -- and lose to the way a great champion should.
Sampras was playing through pure exhaustion. His ankle ached from an injury that had kept him out of tournaments for 44 days. And then early in the match his back went. By the third set, his side had begun to cramp. And, finally, the bottoms of both feet were rubbed raw.
But Sampras, a two-time Open champion, would not quit against Yzaga, and actually rallied before, nearly immobile, he lost the final point, the final set and the match, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6, 7-5. He left to a standing ovation.
"If I was going out of the U.S. Open," he said then, "he was going to have to put me out. I wasn't just going to give it to him. It was my responsibility to make him earn it."
That match marked the first time he had emotionally connected with tennis fans.
Suddenly, he was no longer the boring, unemotional serving machine that fans admired but did not love. Suddenly, Pete Sampras was a tennis player with guts perhaps as great as Jimmy Connors', and a heart as big as "Little" Kenny Rosewall, one of those former Australian players for whom Sampras so often expresses his own admiration.
And now, a year later, having won his third straight Wimbledon, he has become a star in television commercials, paired with Andre Agassi, his arch rival, blasting tennis balls on the streets of San Francisco, and with John McEnroe, who is seen trying to teach him how to be a little more obnoxious on court.
And when you travel to the U.S. Open by subway here, you come face to face with Sampras, the macho man. But, as it turns out, the macho part may just be papier-mache.
Posters stretched along the inside of subway cars quote him as saying: "The great thing about tournaments in New York is that there are so many things for my opponents to do after I beat them." And on another, "Tennis is in my blood. If you cut me open, you'll find little furry yellow hemoglobins."
The whole thing left Sampras a little speechless.
Has he ridden the New York subway and seen the posters? "No! Are you crazy?"
And when asked about the hemoglobins, he looked mystified. "Are you speaking English or German?"
On the court over these last 11 days, Sampras has been macho all the way. He is the No. 2 seed and he has not really been in danger of losing.
"The [hard] court isn't taking a toll," Sampras said. "I feel like I am pretty fit. There is always something a little sore every now and again, but at this point in the tournament, you can't worry about [it]."
Courier tried to give Chang plenty to worry about. He cursed in Spanish and played mind games with Chang, staring at him hard across the net, using delay tactics, anything it took to claw back and win.
"Michael is always trying to do whatever it takes to win," Courier said, ripping Chang for trying to catch him off guard when preparing to serve.
Courier earned his code violations and his victory, as the usually indefatigable Chang served three times for sets and lost each one. He also double-faulted at match point.
"At the U.S. Open, you hope those things don't happen," said Chang. "You hope that you are able to capitalize on at least one of those opportunities."
Sampras is determined to capitalize on his opportunity this year.
Yesterday, feisty Byron Black made little impression because Sampras' serve was so fast. Even the wind, which billowed around the stadium and made conditions in Sampras' words "brutal," could not fluster him.
"I did a pretty good job concentrating, considering the conditions," Sampras said. "And then I just picked up my serve and my whole game kind of just came behind it. You know you don't want to relax at this point. . . . I mean, this is the U.S. Open."
And Sampras is just a match away from a championship !B showdown.
Men's singles, quarterfinals
PTC Pete Sampras (2), Tampa, Fla., def. Byron Black, Zimbabwe, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, 6-0. Jim Courier def. Michael Chang, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-3),7-5.
Women's doubles, semifinals
Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, Netherlands, and Rennae Stubbs, Australia (6), def. Jill Hetherington, Canada, and Kristine
Radford, Australia, 6-4, 7-6 (8-6).
Mixed doubles, championship
Meredith McGrath, Midland, Mich., and Matt Lucena, Chico, Calif., def. Gigi Fernandez, Aspen, Colo., and Cyril Suk, Czech Republic (3), 6-4, 6-4.
Men's doubles championship
Alex O'Brien, Amarillo, Texas, and Sandon Stolle, Australia (15), vs. Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, Australia (2)
Women's doubles semifinals
Gigi Fernandez, Aspen, Colo., and Natasha Zvereva, Belarus (2), vs. Lori McNeil, Houston, and Helena Sukova, Czech Republic (15).