Pete Sampras loves to deliver a message on the first point of a match, and the one he sent to Justin Gimelstob—a 133 mph service winner up the middle—was emphatic.
It was a serve that left no doubt that Sampras was on, that there would be no upset tonight in the U.S. Open as there had been the night before when two-time champion Patrick Rafter tumbled out.
Sampras kept pounding out that message, game after game, never losing a service game, and when he served four aces in a row in the final game to run his total to 13, Gimelstob was gone, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3.
“It was one of those matches where everything kind of clicked,” Sampras said. “I was keyed up. You hope it carries over for the rest of the tournament, but it’s pretty tough to keep that level up. But it can be done.”
If he can, Gimelstob thought, nobody will beat him.
“I couldn’t hang with him,” Gimelstob said. “He just played much too good for me. Even when I felt like I was on the ball, it was just a little bit out of my reach. He was moving the ball around well and placing it well and obviously hitting it hard. It was pretty impressive.”
Since he turned pro four years ago, the 6-foot-5 Gimelstob has carried the promise, or the hope, that he would be the next great American men’s player, that he would inherit Sampras’ place in the game. Now, at 23, with nothing better than a third-round finish in major tournaments, and with no year-end ranking higher than No. 80, there is no reason to believe he will ever come close to that goal.
At 29, Sampras, four times the U.S. Open champ, is still capable of making Gimelstob look like an awkward amateur. Even with a bum leg at Wimbledon, he beat Gimelstob in four sets. The way he beat him this time only emphasized the gap between them.
Away from the antics of an abrasive tennis dad and the muttering of fans unhappy about a new statue at the National Tennis Center, Magnus Norman labored during the afternoon like a forgotten man in pursuit of the No. 1 ranking.
For all the attention Norman commanded, he could have been a qualifier searching for his first victory and a shoe contract.
Certainly, the drama lay elsewhere.
There was Jelena Dokic’s father, Damir, getting tossed by police from yet another tournament, this time for berating a players lounge cafeteria worker over the price and size of the salmon she served him. Bobbies kicked him out of Wimbledon in June after he went into a drunken rage, but they let him back the next day. U.S. Open officials won’t be so lenient, banning him for the rest of this tournament.
There were the fans who were offended or confused by the statue in the new Arthur Ashe Commemorative Garden, a 14-foot bronze that doesn’t look like Ashe, doesn’t have a racket and isn’t wearing any clothes.
There was the parade of popular players moving ahead smartly - Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles among the women, Mark Philippoussis among the men.
Then there was Norman.
Norman projects none of the charisma of Andre Agassi, none of the power of Sampras, and has none of the Grand Slam titles that they possess.
Yet, in the quirky way the ATP Tour rankings work, Norman could take over the top spot in the year-end race without even winning a major tournament. In fact, only Norman and Sampras are in position to pass No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten, a first-round loser, when the U.S. Open ends. Agassi could win his second major of the year and still not be No. 1.