NEW YORK -- With one shot, Pete Sampras' remarkable resurgence at the U.S. Open began to unravel.
The four-time champion sent an easy volley long to lose the opening set, then trudged to his chair, sat down and slammed his racket into his bag, as if done for the day.
He kept playing, but barely. The Pete Sampras of old, who for nearly two weeks tore through a daunting draw, merely looked like an old Pete Sampras in Sunday's final against young Australian Lleyton Hewitt.
While Sampras was tentative and lethargic, Hewitt seemed to run down every shot and coolly ripped one winner after another to earn his first Grand Slam title, 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-1.
''The kid is so quick it's unbelievable,'' the 30-year-old Sampras said. ''I wish I had some of those legs for this old guy. I lost to a great champion. You're going to see this Lleyton Hewitt guy for the next 10 years like you saw me.''
The final was Hewitt's first and Sampras' 17th, but the less experienced 20-year-old Australian was much more energetic. After consecutive wins against former champions Pat Rafter, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin, Sampras appeared to have nothing left for his second match in barely 24 hours.
While Hewitt was more relentless than a ball machine, Sampras had just five groundstroke winners and 38 unforced errors. He won only half the points when he went to the net as Hewitt passed him with increasing ease.
The rout was reminiscent of Sampras' loss to young Safin in last year's final and is certain to renew talk of his decline, despite the impressive run to the final. Although Sampras bristles at retirement speculation and says he wants to play at least another five years, evidence mounts that he can't sustain his former level through a two-week tournament.
''I've proven this week I can still win Slams, no question in my mind,'' he said. ''Thirty isn't that old. I still feel like I have many years left.''
This is the first year since 1992 he has failed to win a major championship. He has gone 18 tournaments without a title since 2000 Wimbledon, when he broke the record for men's Grand Slam singles titles with No. 13. For the second year in a row, he came up one win shy of a record-tying fifth Open men's title.
After drubbing Sampras, Hewitt came to his defense.
''I think he's proved a point over the last two weeks,'' Hewitt said.
One thing Sampras can still do is size up an opponent. He has long been among Hewitt's biggest boosters, touting him as a future Grand Slam champ, and now the tenacious golden-haired retriever has made the breakthrough.
He's the youngest Open men's champion since Sampras won his first major title 11 years ago at age 19.
The No. 4-seeded Hewitt earned $850,000, and the victory may give his reputation a much-needed boost Down Under. He hasn't been widely beloved by sports-mad Australians because his brash, pugnacious style runs counter to their preferred image of the laid-back, gracious sportsman.
His latest outburst was a tirade during a match last week, when his made ill-advised, perhaps racially tinged comments made headlines. But he moved beyond the furor, made no other verbal missteps and returned the focus to his tennis, which has been terrific. He won five-setters against young Americans James Blake and Andy Roddick en route to the final.
''It wasn't a good situation to put myself into during a Grand Slam tournament. It's going to be one of the toughest things I had to block out during a tennis event. I didn't mean anything bad by it at all,'' he said.
Given the opponent and the partisan crowd, Hewitt wisely showed little emotion against Sampras until the final point. He hit one last passing shot -- a backhand return winner -- and skidded onto his back with glee. He arose pumping his fist, shook hands with Sampras and then trotted to the stands to kiss his girlfriend, French Open runner-up Kim Clijsters.
The generation gap was obvious as soon as the players walked on the court. Sampras, in his tennis whites and thinning hair, appeared on his way to a country club match. Hewitt, with the bright red shirt and backward baseball cap, appeared on his way to a hip-hop concert.
''Walking out there to play Pete Sampras in your first ever Grand Slam final is something you'll never forget,'' Hewitt said. ''Obviously, I had a few nerves going out there playing probably the greatest player to ever live in my biggest match ever in tennis.''
But it was Sampras who struggled from the start. He thought he had an ace on the third point before chair umpire Norm Cryst overruled, changing the call to a double fault. Sampras lost the game, ending his streak of holding serve in 87 consecutive games, dating to the second round.
He broke back for 1-1 when Hewitt double-faulted twice, but the Aussie quickly settled down. The set progressed to 6-6 without another break.
In the tiebreaker, Sampras hit two forehands long and another into the net, then sent that backhand volley long on set point. Hewitt passed Sampras five times in one game to break for a 3-1 lead in the second set, and the rout was on.
''He returned and passed about as well as anyone I've ever played,'' Sampras said. ''He's got the best return and the best wheels in the game.''
Looking progressively more sluggish and discouraged as shadows crept across the court, Sampras hit one forehand against the backboard and sent a return into the seats behind him. The crowd was firmly behind the American -- despite one shout of ''C'mon mate!'' -- but had little to cheer about in the last two sets.
When Hewitt walked into his postmatch new conference, he was still wearing his cap backward.
''Take it off?'' he said with a chuckle. ''No, my hair's not done.''
Sampras wore an impassive expression, but was matter-of-fact about defeat.
''I just wish,'' he said, ''that I could have given a better show for the people.''
Peninsula Clarion ©2014. All Rights Reserved.