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It's out with the old

Pete Sampras' eight-year Grand Slam streak ends with his worst U.S. Open loss in 12 years.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 10, 2001

NEW YORK -- Almost as if he were sorry, mate, Australian Lleyton Hewitt patted Pete Sampras on the shoulder as they walked off the court. Hewitt, the brash 20-year-old, had just become the second fresh-legged youngster in as many years to win a U.S. Open title at Sampras' expense.

After a remarkable run through his first six matches, Sampras suddenly looked as if the game had passed him by faster than one of Hewitt's backhands. As another 20-year-old, Marat Safin, had done to Sampras a year ago, Hewitt decimated his serve-and-volley game, needing only 1 hour 54 minutes to win 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-1 for his first Grand Slam title.

Sampras left the court a broken man -- much-broken, in fact. After holding serve for a remarkable 87 straight games, Hewitt broke him in the match's first game and did it five more times.

"The harder I served, the more I put into it, the better he returned," Sampras said. "He's got the best return in the game, the best wheels in the game. He possesses now a much better serve. He's a great player. You'll see him contending here for the next 10 years."

Meanwhile, Sampras' time as a contender might be coming to a close. Eleven years after winning the first of four Open titles, he suffered through his worst loss at the tournament since 1989, when at age 18, he fell to Jay Berger 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in the fourth round.

He has not won a title in 14 months, since Wimbledon 2000. The loss also ended his streak of eight consecutive years winning at least one Grand Slam.

But while he hoped he had a date with destiny Sunday after beating No. 6 seed Patrick Rafter, No. 2 Andre Agassi and No. 3 Safin in consecutive matches, he found out quickly that beating Hewitt to win his record-extending 14th Grand Slam would be tougher than anything he had done all week.

Hewitt broke Sampras on three of his first nine service games and only picked up steam from there. He made just one unforced error in the second set and two in the third.

Hewitt whipped 25 baseline winners, 20 more than Sampras. All eight times he came to the net he won the point. In contrast, Sampras came in 98 times, winning just 49 of those points.

"I've had to work on little areas of my game because I don't have the biggest game or serve," said Hewitt, the third Australian in five years to win the Open.

"So I've had to work on little areas of my game to sort of be able to counterpunch those bigger guys."

Hewitt also showed remarkable focus since coming under heavy criticism in the second round. While playing American James Blake, who is black, he complained about being called for a foot fault by a black linesman, saying, "Look at him. Look at him and tell me what the similarity is."

Hewitt denied the comment was racially motivated, saying he was referring to an earlier foot-fault call against him by the same linesman. The U.S. Tennis Association did not fine him, but for several matches Open fans treated him harshly.

By Sunday, the boos were gone. The crowd spent its energy trying to rouse Sampras, who played ploddingly compared with Hewitt.

Both players had difficulty coping with windy conditions in the first set, which went to a tiebreaker. Hewitt took an early 3-0 lead, but Sampras got back in it, pulling within 5-4 before giving up two unforced errors to lose the set.

Sampras' frustration -- and number of errors -- only built over the next two sets. With Sampras down 5-2 in the third set, and trying to hold serve to keep playing, what would normally be an easy volley flew awkwardly off the top of his racket and careened into the net for Hewitt's first match-point opportunity.

Hewitt couldn't convert that time, but minutes later Sampras batted a forehand long, giving him another chance. Hewitt smacked yet another backhand passing shot, then fell on his back as if in disbelief.

"Four years ago I was out here playing juniors," he said. "I lost in the round of 16 or something. I still have the junior photo on the front of my badge here. ... It is unbelievable."

While Sampras said there's "no question in my mind" he still can win Grand Slams, he acknowledged it will get tougher to fend off the up-and-comers like Hewitt.

"I got through some tough matches, beat some great players along the way," Sampras said. "But to get to this point and not get the grand prize at the end is a little deflating. He was just too good."

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