Pete Sampras saved a match point and rallied to beat Jan Apell of Sweden on Saturday, setting up an all-American final against Todd Martin at the Queen's Club grass-court tournament.
Sampras defeated Apell 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2, while Martin downed South African qualifier Christo van Rensburg 6-1, 6-4.Sunday's contest will be a rematch of this year's Australian Open final, won by Sampras in straight sets.
"In Australia I lost to a better player," Martin said. "Hopefully this time Pete won't be the better player. I'm excited because it is always fun to play the best players, and Pete is the best player in the world."
Sampras, frustrated by Apell's return of service in the first two sets, turned the match around against the 127th-ranked player with five straight points after falling behind 5-2 in the second-set tiebreaker.
One game earlier, the top seed had stayed alive with a service winner on match point.
"I wasn't worried about the match point because it was on my serve," Sampras said. "But then I was 2-5 down in the tiebreaker that followed and I was concerned. It was in his hands to win. I got lucky."
A brilliant forehand passing shot down the line brought Sampras back to 3-5 in the tiebreaker. He then followed with three more winners and his 10th ace of the match.
Apell broke Sampras to start the third set and held serve to go ahead 2-0, but won only five more points as Sampras won the final six games.
Apell, better known for his doubles play, fended off Sampras' serve early in the match with sharp return winners and low half-volleys that the American had trouble putting away at the net.
Sampras didn't even have a break point against Apell's strong left-handed serve until the third set.
The American was so unsettled by Apell's game that, after losing a point on a perfect passing shot in the 10th game of the second set, Sampras held up both hands and bowed in tribute to the 24-year-old Swede, drawing applause from the crowd.
"For a while there he was kicking my butt," Sampras said. "I really started playing some good tennis in the third set. Before that I wasn't playing so well, but he had a lot to do with it. On a scale of 10, I would say I played a 6-point-5."
Apell, playing his first major event on the surface, upset grass-court specialists Goran Ivanisevic and Mark Woodforde earlier in the week.
"I was surprised to be in a position to beat him," Apell said. "I was mentally tired in the third set. I had never expected to get to match point or get that close and in the end I just couldn't take any more."
Martin's match against van Rensburg was halted for 43 minutes in the first set by a bomb scare.
Officials said they were sure the telephone threat was a hoax because no standard Irish Republican Army code was given, but they cleared the venue as a precaution.
The Queen's tournament is often seen as a harbinger for Wimbledon, but neither Apell nor van Rensburg are expected to play singles at the All England Club this year. Their world rankings are too low to get a place in the main draw, and rather than go through the qualifying tournament at Roehampton next week, each indicated a preference to play at the regular tour event in Manchester.
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In Birmingham, England, Americans Zina Garrison-Jackson and Lori McNeil advanced to the final of the Birmingham grass-court tennis tournament on Saturday.
Top-seeded Garrison-Jackson beat Nathalie Tauziat of France 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, while second-seeded McNeil rallied to defeat Brenda Schultz of the Netherlands 3-6, 7-5, 6-2.
Sunday's match will be a rematch of the 1993 final, when McNeil defeated Garrison-Jackson in three sets.
"It will be interesting because we both have the chance to win a second title here," Garrison-Jackson said.