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Big serves, but bigger stakes

Marat Safin and Pete Sampras meet in today's powerful men's final.

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2000


NEW YORK -- He has the record of 13 Grand Slam victories, so Pete Sampras is now in the business of collecting them for fun.

Business is looking good.

Sampras schooled 19-year-old Australian Lleyton Hewitt 7-6 (9-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) Saturday in the U.S. Open semifinals to earn a shot today at what could be his fifth title at Flushing Meadows.

The only man in his way is sixth seed Marat Safin, who dispatched fan-favorite Todd Martin 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-1) in the day's first semifinal.

The final will be a clash of two punishing servers but a contrast of career achievement. This is Sampras' 16th Slam final, the 20-year-old Safin's first.

Sampras split his two previous matches against Safin, with the Russian taking their last meeting in Toronto a few weeks ago.

"He's a powerful player," said Sampras, who missed last year's U.S. Open with an injury. "If you let him play, you give him high shots to the forehand or backhand, he'll crack it. He possesses a big serve, too, and I need to get that back."

If Sampras, 29, is slowing as he nears the end of his 13th year on the ATP Tour, it's hard to tell. What does it say about Sampras that Hewitt said the former No. 1 pro "easily played the best he's ever played against me."

Sure, Sampras isn't as dominant as he once was, but he has looked every bit as strong during this Open as in the past several years, losing just one set en route to the final.

Even though Sampras won Saturday in straight sets, it was no gimme. Hewitt, playing in his first Slam semifinal, had won their previous meeting and seemed poised to use Sampras as another steppingstone in his career.

But Sampras is special because he does special things. Saturday, his trusty serve wasn't as menacing as usual. Hewitt, not known as a big server, hit 23 aces to Sampras' 18.

Yet Sampras found other ways to win, using his experience and savvy to deflect Hewitt in the tiebreakers and control the match.

The first tiebreaker, in particular, was crucial. Hewitt held a set point at 7-6 and had a sitter near the net, but he pulled his attacking forehand wide. Sensing he was just given new life, Sampras swept the next two points to take the set.

"A tiebreak is sort of a toss of a coin. I still felt I went for the right shot," Hewitt said. "I didn't play the percentages. I didn't allow myself a bigger margin of error on that point. But I still feel like I played a pretty good match."

That the unseeded Martin got this far was a bonus. He played a five-set marathon against Carlos Moya in the fourth round and had a tough time with Thomas Johansson in the quarterfinals.

Martin conceded he was a bit tired Saturday but said, "I could have been totally fresh and the score still could have been exactly the same."

Indeed, Safin played at a level above Martin, especially in the tiebreakers, where Martin never came up with the goods.

Safin pinned Martin down with powerful serves, including 13 aces, and patiently waited to pounce on a weak return. He did that so well he forced his 6-foot-6 opponent to abandon his normal game to relentlessly charge the net with minimal success.

"It was purely out of defense," Martin said. "I had to attack in order not to get smothered."

With Martin gone, the bar gets raised considerably for Safin in the final against Sampras. And Safin suffers from no illusions about the magnitude of the moment.

"I think I have enough experience not to be very nervous in the final," Safin said.

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