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SAMPRAS INCHES CLOSER TO TOP RANKING

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Pete Sampras is a win away from being No. 1 again after enduring what he dreads most - a tiebreaker - to complete a 7-6 (8-6), 6-3 win over Jan Kroslak in the Sybase Open semifinals Saturday.

"The tiebreaker's always a crapshoot, and today I got a little lucky," said Sampras, who survived a scare in the tiebreaker when Kroslak double-faulted twice and lost the last four points."He was going for huge second serves the whole match," Sampras said. "It was only a matter of time before he missed those."

The second-ranked Sampras can regain the ATP computer's No. 1 ranking with a win in Sunday's finals, when he faces the winner of Saturday night's match between Andre Agassi and Michael Chang.

Kroslak, an unseeded 21-year-old from Bratislava, Slovakia, proved to be a solid hurdle in Sampras' path. The two had played just once before, at the 1995 Australian Open, where Sampras breezed in straight sets and won 18 of 21 games.

After each player gained an early break - only the second against Sampras in the tournament - Kroslak held firm through the first set to force a tiebreaker. That usually spells trouble for Sampras, who last year lost nine of his first 10 tiebreakers and this year was off to another ominous 0-3 start.

Sure enough, Kroslak caught the first mini-break and reached set point while serving at 6-4. But suddenly he lost his composure, giving up a double-fault to give the serve back to Sampras, who won four straight points and took the set when Kroslak double-faulted again.

"I was thinking just to hit a winner with the second serve, maybe surprise him," Kroslak said. "And I missed it."

Sampras was a point away from losing a break in the second game of the next set when he recovered to win seven of the next eight points, breaking Kroslak in the third game and going on to win 6-3.

Ranked 119th, Kroslak figures to move up the ATP ladder this year as he continues to recover from a sprained ankle. He already made the fifth biggest jump of anyone who finished in the Top 100 of last year's rankings, going from 254 to 86.

If Sampras meets Agassi in the finals, the winner takes over the No. 1 ranking. If Chang wins the title, Thomas Muster keeps his top rank for now, despite losing Wednesday in the Dubai Open in his first match as No. 1.