- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

NEW YORK Spare the sympathy. Pete Sampras doesn't need it.
Dismissed as a run-down, washed-up, balding non-factor as little as two weeks ago, Sampras continued his resurgent run through the U.S. Open, advancing to today's final with a 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 semifinal victory over Marat Safin yesterday at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
With the victory, Sampras defeated his third former U.S. Open champion in a row, avenging a humbling, straight-set loss to Safin in last year's title match.
"These moments, these two weeks, the opportunity tomorrow that's why I keep doing what I want to do," Sampras said. "I still enjoy playing out there, the atmosphere and the crowd. It's a rush. It's a great feeling walking out there in a final."
Sampras next faces Lleyton Hewitt, a 20-year-old Australian who breezed past Yevgeny Kafelnikov 6-1, 6-2, 6-1 to reach his first major final.
Sampras and Hewitt met in last year's U.S. Open semifinals, with Sampras earning a hard-fought, three-set victory that included two tiebreakers.
"I didn't take my chances when I had them last year," Hewitt said. "He doesn't give you a lot of them… . The way he's playing at the moment, he's going to be very tough to beat."
Heading into the tournament, however, Sampras seemed anything but tough. Mired in the worst stretch of his career, a 14-month title drought that extends back to last summer's Wimbledon, he arrived at Flushing Meadows as the No. 10 seed.
For the 13-time Grand Slam winner, it was an insultingly low draw, but one that Sampras didn't dispute. A sentimental favorite for perhaps the first time, he was considered a long shot in a bracket that included former champions Patrick Rafter, Andre Agassi and Safin.
Yet with each successive victory Rafter in the round of 16, Agassi in a quarterfinal classic, Safin in straight sets the four-time U.S. Open champion has looked more and more like the Sampras of old: sharp volleys, crackling forehands and, above all, a flat-out invincible serve that hasn't been broken in 87 consecutive games
"The second week of a Slam, that's historically when I kind of raise it a level," Sampras said. "I had to do it much earlier having played Pat. I was forced into playing great players early. And maybe that's helped me. You get into a certain rhythm. It's starting to click here at the right time."
Sampras flashed all of his familiar gifts against Safin, launching 20 aces and winning 54 points at the net. Up 3-2 in the first set, he earned a break with an impossibly difficult overhead backhand volley punctuating the point with a quick, pistol-like motion to the crowd then won the set with a similar shot.
In the third set, Sampras was at it again, scoring a second break on a running forehand topspin lob that looped over the 6-foot-4 Safin and caught the inside of the baseline, leaving Sampras to kiss his racket.
And when Sampras wasn't good, he was lucky. On serve and facing a break and set point at 4-5 in the second, he blasted a first serve just wide and had the ball ruled an ace by the chair umpire.
For his part, the 21-year-old Safin was undone by a handful of costly, if characteristic, brain locks. In the second set tiebreaker, he smacked a pair of easy midcourt forehands long; in his first service game of the third set, he doubled-faulted twice, setting up a triple break point that Sampras greedily devoured.
"You see Pete Sampras, of course it's not only serve, you also start to remember in the match how many Grand Slams he won, how many finals he won," Safin said. "He has also great volley. At the net, he's unbelievable. It's too much pressure, I think. Is not only serve, is pressure all the time. It's mental."
Like Friday's Serena Williams-Martina Hingis women's semifinal, the Hewitt-Kafelnikov match was as competitive as the average Harlem Globetrotters game, and only slightly less laughable.
With girlfriend and women's quarterfinalist Kim Clijsters watching from the stands, Hewitt swept Kafelnikov aside like so much courtside rubbish, handing him the worst U.S. Open semifinal loss in the open era.
For the match, Hewitt hit 25 winners to Kafelnikov's 11, broke his opponent eight times and cashed in on Kafelnikov's 37 unforced errors, a ragged collection of wide, long and wholly unplayable balls.
Kafelnikov's lackluster, Chernobyl-esque meltdown was stunning, given that the 27-year-old Russian has two Grand Slam titles to his credit and had expressed a desire to play in an all-Russian final against Safin. And it was all the more surprising considering the duo's quarterfinal matches.
While Kafelnikov cruised past No. 1 seed Gustavo Kuerten in straight sets, Hewitt labored through a five-set, late night marathon against Andy Roddick. Yet under the hot mid-afternoon sun, it was Kafelnikov who looked exhausted, sleepwalking through a series of miss-timed groundstrokes and ill-advised rushes to the net.
"I wasn't tired at all," Kafelnikov said. "Absolutely nothing wrong with me physically. It's just one of those days."
Kafelnikov hoped to slow Hewitt with a liberal dose of serve-and-volley, the same strategy he used to dump Kuerten. Hewitt, however, had other ideas, sticking passing shot after passing shot past his lead footed foe.
"What makes him so good is that he gets so many balls back to the court," Kafelnikov said. "It's just amazing. You feel like you're dominating the point, and then all of a sudden he's coming up with the shot you never expected."
Sampras can expect more of the same from Hewitt in the final, but Safin isn't so sure it will matter.
"What you can suggest?" Safin said. "I mean, you have Pete. What you can tell to [Hewitt]? It's up to Pete. Everybody knows. If Pete is feeling OK today, and he's happy, you have probably not many chances to beat him."


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