- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

NEW YORK — In heat or wind, with the crowd for or against him, facing Andre Agassi’s baseline bashing or Tim Henman’s get-to-the-net style: When Roger Federer is on his game, it doesn’t seem to matter what he has to confront.

Now Lleyton Hewitt will try to disrupt him.

The top-ranked Federer moved within a victory of becoming the first man since 1988 to win three Grand Slam tournaments in a year, beating No.5 Henman 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 yesterday in the U.S. Open semifinals.

“I feel very confident out on the court,” Federer said. “It’s important that every day, I wake up, I’m 100 percent into tennis and ready to go.”

In last night’s women’s final, Svetlana Kuznetsova overwhelmed Elena Dementieva 6-3, 7-5 in the American Grand Slam’s first all-Russian final.

“When I played the first game, I was, ‘Wow, there are so many people out here.’ I was nervous,” said Kuznetsova, never past the quarterfinals at a major before. “This morning, I was nervous. I was stiff. But something inside of me was telling me I would be fine.”

As of four months ago, no Russian woman ever won a major, but Anastasia Myskina beat Dementieva in the French Open final, and Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon. Russians occupy half of the top 10 spots in the rankings.

“Russia is just a powerful country,” said Kuznetsova, the youngest Open champion since Serena Williams was 17 in 1999. “There’s competition between us.”

Until now, Kuznetsova probably was the least-known of her country’s crop of rising stars, instead most famous for being Martina Navratilova’s former doubles partner. They won five titles as a pair and were the runners-up at the 2003 Open.

How anonymous is Kuznet-sova? After a practice session 1 hours before the match, she walked across the National Tennis Center grounds without getting asked for autographs or photos. She might as well have been another fan in a gray sweat shirt, milling around, waiting for the U.S. Open final to start.

Indeed, during the on-court trophy presentation after the match, U.S. Tennis Association president Alan Schwartz mispronounced her name before correcting himself.

In today’s men’s final, Federer will play 2001 Open champion Hewitt, who was nearly flawless himself in eliminating No.28 Joachim Johansson 6-4, 7-5, 6-3. As Hewitt scrambled along the baseline, getting to everything Johansson offered, his sneakers squeaked with each step, sounding like high-pitched bird chirps.

Only three players have more than five career wins over Federer, and two are Henman (now 6-3 against the Swiss star) and Hewitt (8-5). Asked what weaknesses of Federer’s he’ll try to exploit, Hewitt said, “I don’t know. There’s not a lot of them.”

The crowds at the Open love an underdog, and Henman got more positive energy yesterday than he normally does at Wimbledon, where he’s hounded by the pressure of a nation looking for a British champion.

The fans tried to will him past Federer, who silenced them by conjuring twice as many winners (31) as unforced errors (15). Federer might not hit serves at 150mph the way Andy Roddick does, but he knows where to place them and how to vary them. He befuddled Henman at the start, winning 12 straight points on serve. Only twice in that span did Henman manage to put the ball in play.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who hits the ball like that,” said Henman, 0-6 in major semifinals. “If you take Roddick’s serve and Agassi’s returns and my volleys and Hewitt’s speed and tenacity, then you’ve probably got a good chance against Federer.”

Case in point: the eighth game of the match, after the players traded breaks. With Henman serving, Federer displayed unbelievable variety. He flicked a forehand lob that curled over Henman and landed right where the baseline and sideline meet, similar to a momentum-shifting lob he cut through 40mph wind against Agassi in the quarterfinals.

Then Federer raced to the net behind a deep approach shot, drawing a forehand error from a rushed Henman. Federer sealed the break with a forehand passing winner.

“I surprised myself today, what shots I pulled off, because some were at very important moments, and these are the ones that count the most,” said Federer, 63-6 in 2004 with a tour-leading eight titles, including the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

In addition to trying to make it a trio of Slams in a season, something last done by Mats Wilander 16 years ago, here’s what’s at stake for Federer today:

• No one has won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back-to-back since Pete Sampras in 1995.

• Including Wimbledon in 2003, Federer is 3-0 in major finals, and no one in the Open era has won his first four.

• He’s won 10 straight tournament finals overall.

• He’s won 16 straight matches against players ranked in the top 10.

“Now that I’m in the final, I start thinking about it, all the records. There’s a lot on the line for me,” Federer said. “I hope I can cope with all those things, plus there’s a very tough opponent.”

Hewitt, the 2002 Wimbledon champ, owns a 16-match winning streak. But he lost to the eventual champion at the other three majors this year, including to Federer in Australia and England.

“Playing Roger, I’m going to have to play some great tennis,” Hewitt said. “But I feel like I’m playing well at the moment, and I give myself a good chance.”

He stared down the 6-foot-6 Johansson’s booming serves and forehands, the same ones that were too much for defending champion Roddick. Hewitt broke Johansson in the final game of each of the first two sets and in the next-to-last game of No.3.

Hewitt faced just one break point, which he saved, and finished with a flourish, claiming the last 12 points. He hasn’t lost a set — something no man who has won the Open has done since Neale Fraser in 1960.

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