Tennis: Sampras in salvage job

Countdown to Wimbledon: World No 1 reaches first final this year as Henman keeps him in suspense
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TIMING HIS efforts ultimately to perfection between the rain breaks, Pete Sampras continued his salvage job on a horrendous year by reaching the final of the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club, London, yesterday. But Sampras needed to remind himself that he is the world's best as he held on grimly to edge out the 18-year-old Australian, Lleyton Hewitt, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6, in a match of two hours nine minutes which was interrupted by a lengthy weather hold-up at the end of the second set.

Sampras - and the tournament organisers - are looking forward to a final against Tim Henman this afternoon, which would mean the second seed contesting the first prize of pounds 52,500 with the third seed, but the British player's confident progress towards that meeting was hit by more rain when he was leading the Armenian Sargis Sargsian 6-1 3-2. As darkness gathered, play was called off, with Henman's semi-final due to resume at 11am today, and the final scheduled for a 2pm start.

Rather than a relieved Sampras squeaking through to his first tour final since he lost at the Paris indoor event to Greg Rusedski last November, it could so easily have been the young man from Adelaide appearing in his fourth final of the season. Hewitt is a child of the Nineties, cap back to front, mane of fair hair cascading to his neck and a peach of a two-fisted backhand.

Playing with breathtaking confidence, he took the newly-restored world No 1 the full distance. "I have to take a lot of good things away from today," Hewitt said afterwards. "It was only a few points in the end that cost me the match."

Sampras's brittle confidence and wonky timing caused by a shortage of match play this year were not helped by the searching tests imposed by Hewitt. His impressively struck passing shots put a quick end to the Sampras game plan of net domination early in the opening set. The young Aussie spoke the truth when he said, "If Pete had kept coming in he realised it would have been suicide."

Sampras contributed to his own problems in that first set by double-faulting to drop serve and his troubles multiplied as his ability to hit aces dried up too. Though a perfectly executed drop shot stopped Sampras going 5- 2 down, Hewitt still pocketed the opening set comfortably in 29 minutes, having conceded a mere five points on serve.

Perhaps a shade awestruck that he was beating the five-time Wimbledon champion, Hewitt had a stumble early in the second set, losing eight points in a row, but he held on as Sampras began to open his shoulders on the counter-attack. In the end, however, as the clouds built up again, Sampras conjured up a set point with a marvellous forehand down the line, at which Hewitt sent a backhand sailing long. So it was level after 71 minutes, as Sampras properly pointed out to the referee that rain was making conditions dangerous and play was suspended.

The delay lasted two hours and five minutes and on the resumption Sampras promptly double-faulted twice to drop serve. Encouraged by a bellow of "Come on you Aussie boy" which shattered the respectful silence, Hewitt clung to that lead for four more games as the prospect of his most memorable victory grew. But Sampras broke back, in fortunate fashion, when an umpire's overrule on game point to Hewitt gave him an opening which he seized with a great "get" to a drop-shot, flicking it away across court, and then striking an immense forehand winner.

That service break was enough to take the match into a nerve-jangling tie-break, in which Hewitt conjured - and wasted - his final chance after taking a 3-1 lead. Sampras needed all his experience to get out of that corner, but he managed it, getting to match point with another great forehand winner and then tucking away a backhand volley.

"I knew it was going to be tough because Lleyton has beaten some experienced grass-court players this week," said Sampras. "He has improved tremendously over the past year and has got the tools to become a great player.

"But it was a great boost to win a close match like that. I could have played better, but he had a lot to do with that. I am beginning to tick a bit now and though there are no guarantees that I am going to win Wimbledon, playing well this week helps.

"I am looking forward to the final and if I play Tim I am sure it will be a great match. I have practised with Tim consistently over the past couple of years and we both know each other's game very well. He has made huge strides since I beat him in the Wimbledon semi-finals last year."

Until the rain made its final intervention Henman looked in total command against Sargsian, the man who had put out Greg Rusedski so easily on Friday. The reason Sargsian, ranked 74, looks so at home on grass is because he won the Surbiton title before coming to Queen's, but Henman was in no mood to accommodate his indulgence in ground strokes. Coming to the net behind a heavy serve, and volleying with authority, Henman swept to a 5-0 lead before closing out the first set in 37 minutes on his fourth set point.

Then Henman held off all Sargsian's attempts at a comeback and left the little Armenian dispirited as he broke him again to take a 3-2 lead in what proved to be the final game before the rain swept in.