The latest hero in this melting pot of a U.S. Open, and the next to face four-time champion Pete Sampras, is a South Korean qualifier from a small, rural town who speaks little English and whose only friend in New York owns a dry cleaning shop.
Hyung-Taik Lee, playing in his first major tournament fresh from a victory on the second-tier Challenger circuit, reached the round-of-16 in this $15 million Grand Slam event Saturday by beating Germany’s Rainer Schuttler 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.
From the far edge of the National Tennis Center on Court 10, where Koreans crowded around to cheer him, the No. 182-ranked Lee will move over to towering Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday to play Sampras.
Ready to Rumble
“If I’m not in awe of the crowd and the stadium, I’m going to put up a good fight,” Lee said through a translator.
Sampras, like virtually everyone else on the tour, never heard of Lee before this week. Nor had Sampras ever heard of the guy he struggled against in the steamy heat Saturday, Argentina’s Agustin Calleri, in a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3), 6-3 win.
“I was told by someone in the locker room … that he was a lefty that stays back,” Sampras said. “He was a righty that hits the ball big. Bad information.”
In a tournament that has seen Galo Blanco of Spain knock off two-time champion Patrick Rafter, and Arnaud Clement of France beat defending champion Andre Agassi, Sampras is tempering his confidence with caution.
“He’s going to come out swinging away, like the guy I played today did,” Sampras said.
Sampras has been running into obscure players lately. On the way to the Wimbledon title, he played a semifinals match against a mystery man from Minsk, Vladimir Voltchkov, who wore borrowed shorts and donated shoes and made more money in two weeks than he had earned in five years as a pro.
Lee, 24, has guaranteed himself at least $55,000 by reaching the fourth round. In seven years scuffling around as a pro on the fringes, he’s made a total of $98,021. Sampras, winner of a record 13 Grand Slam titles, has made more than $40 million in tour events.
No Korean man had ever gone beyond the first round in a major tournament, making Lee not only a surprise here but a celebrity in his homeland. Saturday’s match was televised live throughout South Korea.
“He’s the highest-ranked Korean player ever, so he’s just creating history in Korea when it comes to tennis,” said Lee’s interpreter, Chris Kim of MBC, a Korean television network.
Upsets abounded throughout the first week, and the latest victims were Conchita Martinez, Anna Kournikova, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Mark Philippoussis. Hicham Arazi retired with cramps while leading in the fifth set, and Jerome Golmard retired one round after upsetting Nicolas Lapentti.
Defending women’s champion Serena Williams avoided an upset, beating Giulia Casoni 6-4, 6-2 to reach the round-of-16.
Kafelnikov, seeded No. 5, lost to Dominik Hrbaty 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-1.
Given an extra day of rest, Jan-Michael Gambill upset the hard-serving, 15th-seeded Philippoussis 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the final second-round match. The match had been postponed by rain Friday night.
Shortage of Americans
Gambill, along with Sampras and Todd Martin, represented the fewest American men ever to reach the third round at the U.S. Open.