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Sampras already feels like a winner

After surving the toughest draw of his career, Pete Sampras is one match from his 14th Grand Slam title. Only Lleyton Hewitt stands in the way.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001

NEW YORK -- The record books say he has failed to win a tournament in 14 months. But in Pete Sampras' mind, he has won two titles and avenged the loss of another.

All since Monday.

Working through what he calls the toughest draw of his career, the 10th-seeded Sampras took another decisive step Saturday at the U.S. Open. With both a will and a serve that seemingly can't be broken, he blasted past 2000 Open champion Marat Safin for an energy-conserving 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 semifinal victory.

The last barrier to his 14th Grand Slam title? Australian Lleyton Hewitt, who had an even easier time beating seventh-seeded Yevgeny Kafelnikov 6-1, 6-2, 6-1. The fourth-seeded Hewitt, 20, plays Sampras, 30, today in his first Grand Slam final.

It will be Sampras' first Slam final since his embarrassing straight-sets loss to Safin a year ago at the Open. But after beating No. 6 Patrick Rafter and No. 2 Andre Agassi in four sets last week, he thinks he's already won something worthwhile.

"Emotionally, I looked at Pat and Andre as finals," Sampras said.

"This (draw), I think, beats it all, having played three champions, especially Pat and Andre -- I think we looked at those two guys as being the two guys to beat. And certainly Safin being the defending champion, he was going to be one of the threats. It's been a lot of hard work."

Not so much Saturday.

Safin was as helpless as Sampras was against him a year ago. For the fourth straight match, Sampras won all of his service games, marking 87 straight games without being broken.

"Everybody that goes against Pete understands that if Pete is feeling okay today, and he's happy ... you have probably not many chances to beat him," Safin said. "If he's not serving well, not returning well, not in a good mood, you have a chance."

Safin had, essentially, one. In the second set, with Sampras down 4-5, Safin had a chance to break and win the set. At 30-40, Sampras boomed a 121 mph serve a linesman called out. The chair umpire overruled, calling it an ace. Sampras forced the tiebreaker.

Sampras used not just his big serve but several breathtaking moves from his bag of tricks, including a one-handed backhand overhead at the net on break point in the opening set that first turned things in his favor.

"To pass him, you have to play unbelievable," Safin said. "Every time you're not returning well, he will put away the volley, and the point is over."

If Sampras had an easy time, Hewitt's victory was a walk in nearby Flushing Meadows Corona Park. It was the tournament's most lopsided semifinal since the Open era began in 1968, and since Frank Sedgman beat Art Larsen 6-1, 6-2, 6-0 in 1951.

Quickly becoming one of the most relentless returners in the game, Hewitt stayed at the baseline and slugged away, venturing to the net three times. Kafelnikov came in 22 times but won just five of those points.

"What makes him so good is that he gets so many balls back to the court, it's just amazing, you know," Kafelnikov said. "You feel like you're dominating the point, and all of a sudden he's coming up with the shot that you would never expect he's going to come up with."

Hewitt said he will use the same strategy in the final as he did in the quarterfinals against Andy Roddick, a player who has more raw power but less finesse than Sampras. Hewitt won that match by returning everything and waiting for Roddick to make mistakes.

"(Hewitt) has got the quickness," Sampras said. "I'm going to be coming in, and he likes playing that. It's important to stay aggressive but be patient at the same time."

To Safin, it is much simpler.

"It's up to Pete," he said. "If he wants, he can take it."

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