Hewitt grabs crown from king of Slams

20-year-old dominates Sampras in Open final

September 10, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Pete Sampras should have seen this coming. At age 30, pounding the hard courts at the U.S. Open, day after day against former Open champions Patrick Rafter, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin, what could he possibly have left for No. 4 seed Lleyton Hewitt, a 20-year-old with youthful legs and a cool disposition?

The answer became painfully clear.

For the second year in a row, Sampras, who was seeded 10th, was embarrassed in the U.S. Open final.

Hewitt, playing in his first Grand Slam final, simply crushed the game's all-time Grand Slam champion, 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-1, to become the youngest U.S. Open champion since Sampras, 11 years ago.

This was Sampras' worst loss here since 1989 and the most one-sided final since 1991, when Stefan Edberg defeated Jim Courier, 6-4, 6-2, 6-0.

"At one point, I looked at the scoreboard a couple times to make sure it was real, that I was really two points from the match," Hewitt said.

But even after he had won it with one of many punishing forehand, crosscourt passing shots, Hewitt still could not completely grasp the outcome.

"I'm standing there, at Center Court, about to get the champion's trophy and Pete's there holding the runner-up trophy," Hewitt said. "It didn't quite click for me. And I looked at the names on the trophy as I was standing there. To have my name there, under theirs, it's unbelievable. For me to come through at such a young age, it's fantastic."

Fantastic it was. It was only last week that Hewitt was being accused of racial comments, after several foot-fault calls in his match against James Blake. The linesman who called the violations was, like Blake, black. Hewitt said to the chair umpire, loud enough to be heard on television: "Look at him. Look at him. You tell me what the similarity is."

Some listeners immediately jumped to the conclusion Hewitt was drawing a comparison between the linesman and Blake. But he never pointed from one to the other and he said later that he was only making reference to the fact that the same umpire had called foot faults at both ends of the court during the match.

For many players that flap would have been enough to disrupt concentration, but Hewitt simply played on. He survived a tough four-setter against No. 16 seed Tommy Haas, outlasted the highly regarded young American, Andy Roddick, over five grueling sets, and then ousted talented veteran Yevgeny Kafelnikov with ease to reach Sampras.

"I've got no idea how I block out the distractions," Hewitt said. "I think it's something that I've had to deal with growing up in the juniors back home in Adelaide, when I was playing against older guys. I was No. 1 in Australia a couple years out of my age group and everyone was out to beat me back then. I had to deal with those pressures, and I had to be mentally tough."

Against Sampras, he found himself against another mentally tough customer. And nothing demonstrated that toughness more than the way the 13-time Grand Slam champion competed over the past two weeks here.

Sampras came in besieged with questions about his game. Did he still have one? With questions about his age. Was he too old? With questions about whether he could still compete in a Grand Slam. In fact, having gone 0-for-17 in tournaments since winning Wimbledon in 2000, there were questions about when he would retire. Even with yesterday's loss, which he described as being worse than the one he had suffered in last year's final, he thought that he had made a statement.

"I think I've proven this week that I can still win Slams," he said. "There's no question in my mind. There's always going to be younger, stronger, quicker players in all sports. As you get older, it gets more difficult. But my game is still there. Unfortunately, I just ran into two players, one in Safin last year, and Hewitt this year, who saved their best for me."

Against Safin in 2000, Sampras was overpowered. Yesterday, he said, Hewitt outplayed him.

"I don't know what I could have done differently that would have made a difference," Sampras said.

But he should have seen it coming. No. 7 seed Kafelnikov did, promising Sampras would have a very difficult time because the young Australian returns ball after ball in a relentless progression that forces his opponent into mistakes.

And Sampras himself had hinted that there might be trouble. He had played brilliantly in back-to-back-to-back matches against Rafter, Agassi and Safin, becoming the only player in history to beat three previous champions on the way to an Open final.

And Sampras said he played each of those matches as if they had been finals because he knew he was playing great champions.

"I was excited to play those matches," he said. "That's where my game is."

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