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Sampras Does It Again for Old-Timer's Sake

U.S. Open: Grand master dispatches Hewitt, 19, and will face Safin, 20, of Russia in bid for his fifth title.


NEW YORK — His hair is thinner and his trophy case fuller, but Pete Sampras is no less driven to win Grand Slam championships than he was 10 years ago.

On Saturday, the 10th anniversary of a straight-set victory over Andre Agassi that made him the youngest U.S. Open men's champion and signaled the arrival of a new era in tennis, the 29-year-old Sampras showed his competitive fires still burn and that the younger players trying to replace him at the top will have to wait.

"At least for another day," Sampras said, smiling.

His 7-6 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory over 19-year-old Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, the tournament's youngest male semifinalist since Sampras in 1990, moved Sampras into the U.S. Open final for the sixth time.

All that stands between Sampras and his fifth U.S. Open title, which would equal Jimmy Connors for most in the open era, is 20-year-old Marat Safin of Russia, who earlier defeated Todd Martin, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1).

"We're looking at two young guys who are going to be around for many, many years," Sampras said of Hewitt and Safin. "But I'm still able to hold my own."

He showed that against Hewitt, coming up big during the most important points by playing aggressive, opportunistic tennis in front of a crowd of 23,217 at Arthur Ashe Stadium that included President Clinton.

Against the quick and speedy Australian, who Sampras said is "in the same league as Michael Chang" as far as his ability to run down points, Sampras survived two set points in the first-set tiebreaker.

Serving for the set at 7-6, Hewitt stood at the net with the court wide open in front of him but fired a forehand wide, giving Sampras the opening he needed.

Sampras won the next two points and the set.

Later, about to serve at 5-6 in the third set, Sampras called on a trainer to rub balm on his upper left thigh, which he said was tightening. He then served out the game to get to the tiebreaker.

Once there, he reached match point with an overhead winner, then won when Hewitt netted a backhand.

"When he starts getting in trouble, you think, 'Maybe I have a sniff of a break here,' " Hewitt said. "That's when he pounds you."

Hewitt had put up a gallant fight, but it wasn't enough.

"I felt like I gave 100% out there today, I didn't leave anything in the locker room at all," he said. "I went out there and gave everything I had."

Against Sampras, that's not always enough, as Safin is aware.

The emotional Safin, the first Russian to reach the men's final, idolized Sampras while growing up in Moscow, and he knows he's in for a battle today.

"I don't think the spectators are going to be with me, that's for sure," he said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence, so he's going to serve well, he's going to play pretty sure in the volley. It's already many things against me.

"I will try to start the game, try to put him under pressure, just start from the first point to return his serve, run for the balls even if I can't get them, to show the guy that I'm going to fight for it. I don't want to make him Christmas presents. . . .

"Maybe I will have the chance. If I have it, I will try to make it. If I don't have a chance, what can I do? It's Pete, you know--13 Grand Slams he won, No. 1 in the world. I hope it will work."

Safin won't back off.

"It's nice," he said of reaching the final, "but something is missing. I want to win here."

The sixth-seeded Safin, who survived two five-set matches earlier in the tournament, had an easier time against Martin.

Martin's road to the semifinals included an epic match against Carlos Moya of Spain in the round of 16, a 4-hour 15-minute marathon that ended at 1:19 a.m. Wednesday, plus another late-night victory over Thomas Johansson of Sweden on Thursday, and Martin said the long hours had taken their toll.

"I was fighting an uphill battle the whole way," he said of his match against Safin, which was played in heat and humidity before the weather turned cooler in the Sampras-Hewitt match. "Even up a set point in the second set, I still feel like he's so on his game that it's tough to handle. . . .

"I was coming in every point I could, and it was purely out of defense. I had to attack in order not to get smothered."

Safin and Sampras have split two meetings, with Safin winning the most recent, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (8), last month at Toronto.

"He has a chance to be the best," CBS commentator John McEnroe said of Safin. "He's pretty darn close at the moment."

But Sampras, 13-2 in Grand Slam finals after breaking Roy Emerson's all-time record for major titles with his victory over Patrick Rafter at Wimbledon, stands in his way.

"That's the best Pete's ever played against me," said Hewitt, who had also won his most recent match against Sampras before Saturday. "I think he's really up for it. The pressure is sort of off him.

"That sounds stupid, [to say] the pressure is off him in a Grand Slam final. The pressure is always on him a little bit, but after [breaking the record], he feels a little freer."


Rubber Match

Head-to-head results for U.S. Open finalists Pete Sampras (seeded fourth) and Marat Safin (sixth):

* 1998: U.S. Open, hard court, round of 16--Sampras wins, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

* 2000: Tennis Masters Series-Canada, hard court, quarterfinals--Safin wins, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (8).

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