Sampras, Hewitt set to square off in final

Posted: Sunday, September 09, 2001

NEW YORK -- His stomach churning, Pete Sampras reached into the reservoir of talent that made him the all-time Grand Slam record holder to defeat Marat Safin in Saturday's semifinals of the U.S. Open.

The 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory put the 10th-seeded Sampras in Sunday's final, seeking a 14th Slam title against No. 4 Lleyton Hewitt. Earlier Saturday, Hewitt routed No. 7 Yevgeny Kafelnikov 6-1, 6-2, 6-1 in the most one-sided semifinal in U.S. Open men's history.

Sampras was flawless in the first set, punctuating it with a gorgeous overhead backhand that was among the best shots of the match.

But Safin, seeded third, was not going away. He raised his level, and it was obvious that Sampras was struggling. He called for trainer Doug Spreen, who said Sampras was experiencing some stomach discomfort.

Safin's confidence grew and he began making big shots. Sampras, equipped with one of the best serves in tennis, still would not yield.

Facing a break of serve, he benefited when chair umpire Wayne McKewen overruled an out call and awarded him an ace. He converted that by holding his service, extending his streak to 81 service games without being broken.

Trading shot for shot, the two men rolled through the set into a tiebreak. It was familiar territory for Sampras, who played four tiebreak sets in his classic quarterfinal victory over Andre Agassi two nights earlier.

Sampras' 16th ace of the match put him one point away.

Safin saved one set point but hit long on the next, giving Sampras the set.

Safin has never come back after losing the first two sets.

A double fault put the Russian in trouble in the fourth game of the third set and Sampras converted with a return that just caught the back line. He kissed his racket in appreciation.

Sampras went into overdrive after that. His big serve produced 20 aces, the final one on match point, and he extended his streak of service games without being broken to 87.

The combustible Safin twice complained over calls -- one a foot fault, the second a shot that brushed the line.

For the most part, he kept his temper under control. He had enough to worry about with Sampras on the other side of the net.

Sampras wanted to make a statement against Safin. A year ago, the Russian beat him in the Open finals for his first and only Grand Slam victory.

It seemed as if it might signal a changing of the guard with Safin just 19 and Sampras almost 30.

Sampras' game certainly seemed in decline this year. He was without a tournament victory since setting the Slam record by winning Wimbledon last year and came into the Open dragging. He had gone 17 tournaments without a victory and was stuck in the toughest quarter of the men's draw.

But he made his way through it, beating two-time champions Patrick Rafter and Agassi in consecutive four-setters to reach the semifinal. The win over Safin made Sampras the first man to ever beat three former champions consecutively at the U.S. Open.

A year ago, Sampras reached the final and was a heavy favorite against Safin. He was stung in three sets, a loss that weighed heavily on him.

Meanwhile, Safin struggled this year with injuries, unable to translate his first Slam triumph into any kind of consistency. After winning seven titles last year, he came into the Open without any championships this year.

Hewitt, who won marathon five-set matches against wild card James Blake and highly touted Andy Roddick earlier in the Open, seized control from the start against Kafelnikov in the other semifinal. The fourth-seeded Australian was never threatened, breaking Kafelnikov almost at will.

''I knew I had a job to do,'' Hewitt said. ''I just kept going after it. I knew I had a good chance against Yevgeny. I didn't want to let it slip.''

Kafelnikov, who reached the semifinals with a straight-sets rubout of No. 1-ranked Gustavo Kuerten, looked like a different player against Hewitt. For the most part, he played listless tennis and his body language showed it. He dropped his head often and his shoulders sagged as the 20-year-old Hewitt displayed a wide range of shots.

''I'm not the only one having trouble when I play him,'' Kafelnikov said. ''What makes him so good is he gets so many balls back. He comes up with shots you never would expect.

''I tried to play one game plan at the beginning, and by the middle of the first set, I realized that was not working. I tried something different. I tried to play fast. I tried to play slow. Lleyton was using my pace perfectly. Anything I tried, I was unable to come up with the goods.

''Every time I asked him a question, he had an answer. He was just too good.''

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