Tennis: Sampras high and dry at last

Countdown to Wimbledon: World No 1 reaches first final this year but is made to fight by young Aussie
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The Independent Online
PETE SAMPRAS remembered just in time that he is the world champion as he held on grimly to defeat the 18-year-old Australian wonder boy from Adelaide, Lleyton Hewitt, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6, to reach the final of the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club, London, yesterday evening.

The 2hr 9min match, interrupted for more than two hours by rain at the end of the second set, marks the first time this year Sampras has managed to reach the final of a tournament. His resurrection comes just in time for the defence of his title at Wimbledon.

Sampras's brittle confidence and wonky timing, caused by a shortage of match play this year, were not helped by the searching test imposed by the Australian teenager. Hewitt's beautifully struck passing shots put an end to the Sampras game plan of net attack quite early in the opening set and thereafter the American was happy to try to match his man from the baseline.

Just beneath the lurking rainclouds, the Heathrow-bound jets were forming an orderly queue to land but down below in Baron's Court the order of things was being turned upside down as the man newly restored to world No1 status struggled against a product of the 1990s - cap back to front, mane of fair hair cascading to his neck and a peach of a two-fisted backhand.

Though Sampras contributed mightily to a loss of service in the third game by double-faulting on break point, it was Hewitt's enterprise and accuracy which had put him in that predicament. Soon things grew even more worrying. Having hit four aces in his first three service games, Sampras temporarily lost that art of point-gathering, too.

Only a neatly executed drop shot, averting another break point, saved him from falling 5-2 behind in the opening set, though there was nothing he could do to save it in the end as Hewitt served out confidently for 6-4 in 29 minutes, having conceded a mere five points on serve. The set had been a brief video of Sampras's year to date, a touch short on confidence, a smidgen adrift on accuracy.

The impudence of all that seemed suddenly to get to Hewitt. Beating the five-time Wimbledon champion on grass? Cripes, mate. Having conjured himself another three break points in the opening game of the second set Hewitt then proceeded to lose eight straight points and only rescued his own serve thanks to more lax play from Sampras. But the American had been offered that priceless glimpse of a bright light at the end of this particular tunnel and perked up accordingly.

His steps possibly hastened by a brief flurry of rain, Sampras opened his shoulders and had Hewitt in trouble at double break point in the fourth game but the young Aussie saved both, the second one by managing to return a Sampras trademark slam-dunk smash and winning the ensuing rally.

By now the Sampras serving machine was back in its groove, with four aces being delivered in the following three service games. Holding with ease, all he needed to achieve now was a breakthrough against the dogged resistance from the other end. This he managed just in time as the clouds rolled in again, conjuring two set points with a cracking forehand down the line. When Hewitt projected a backhand beyond the baseline, the match was level at one set all after 71 minutes and as Sampras quietly pointed out that conditions were beginning to get dangerous underfoot, the umpire decided to call a halt as the rain set in.

The delay had done neither man any good. Sampras opened with a brace of double faults and two backhand errors which cost him his serve. Hewitt moved his lead to 2-0 with some difficulty, responding to a bellow of "Come on you Aussie boy" which disturbed the otherwise peaceful scene. An indication that the conditions remained difficult was the sight of Hewitt going full length as he scampered sideways along the baseline.

As he warmed up Sampras began to find his rhythm of the second set and seized his chance when the umpire overruled to call a Hewitt shot out when the line judge thought otherwise. Though Hewitt saved one break point he could do nothing about the next as Sampras made a great "get" of a drop shot and flicked it away across court for a crucial winner to level the set at 3-3.

Sampras survived a break point at 5-5 to stretch this nerve-jangling contest into a tiebreak. At first this, too, seemed to be getting away from him but he held on, reached match point with a stunning forehand down the line and then seized the only opening he was to need by steering away a backhand volley for the shot which put him into this afternoon's final.