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ANTONITSCH’S INNOCUOUS COMMENT LIGHTS FIRE UNDER PETE SAMPRAS

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If Charles Barkley thinks tennis players get off easy, he should have seen the way Pete Sampras punished his brash opponent Saturday night at the Australian Open after an in-your-face exchange.

It was classic intimidation, a confrontation Barkley would have appreciated, administered verbally and physically. If it was mild by NBA standards, it was rare in tennis and still rarer coming from Sampras, the sport's Mr. Congeniality.But the third-ranked Sampras let loose this time, swept six straight points to come back from 5-1 in a first-set tiebreaker, and beat Alex Antonitsch 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-2 to reach the round of 16 against MaliVai Washington.

No. 2 Stefan Edberg also won, beating Amos Mansdorf of Israeli 6-3, 6-1, 1-6, 7-6 (7-5).

Among the women, three-time champion Steffi Graf, the No. 2 seed, reached the fourth round when fellow German Claudia Porwick retired after twisting an ankle in the first game of the second set after losing the first 6-1, and No. 7 Jennifer Capriati defeated Natalia Zvereva of Belarus.

Antonitsch's rather innocent offense occurred after he lunged for a backhand volley and clunked it off the frame just over the net with Sampras near the baseline out of reach of the ball. That gave Antonitsch a 5-1 lead in the tiebreaker, and after the changeover the Austrian sort of apologized to Sampras for the "lucky shot," waving his racket to him and the crowd before serving.

"The people were cheering and everybody thought it was a great shot," said the No. 110-ranked Antonitsch, who annoyed Sampras earlier in the match by playing up cockily to the crowd. "I just said, `Sorry,' because I hit it on the frame."

Only Sampras didn't take it as an apology. He thought Antonitsch was rubbing it in, needling him at the wrong moment, wasting time when Sampras wanted to get on with the match. And that lit Sampras' fuse.

"Are we going to play tennis or what?" Sampras shouted angrily.

"I'm trying to say it was off the frame. I'm sorry," Antonitsch shouted back, still waving his racket, though that did nothing to mollify Sampras.

"I was frustrated and not playing that great," Sampras said afterward, "and for him to do that, it was the last thing I wanted to see or hear."