Tennis: US Open final - Rafter wins his own Australia day

US Open final: Champion successfully defends his crown as Philippoussis fails to reach peak on the big occasion
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The Independent Online
PATRICK RAFTER completed a successful defence of the United States Open men's singles title last night, defeating his Australian compatriot, Mark Philippoussis, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0. There had not been as much leverage from Down Under here since their yachtsman yanked the bolts off the America's Cup.

The tournament ended magnificently for Rafter, the No 3 seed, who was close to becoming the first US Open men's singles title-holder to lose in the first round here in the open era. He recovered from two sets down against the brilliant but erratic Moroccan, Hicham Arazi.

A first all-Australian singles final at the US Open since Ken Rosewall defeated Tony Roche on grass at Forest Hills in 1970 also guaranteed that we would have eight different Grand Slam singles champions this year - Petr Korda and Martina Hingis in Australia, Carlos Moya and Arantxa Sanchez- Vicario at the French, Pete Sampras and Jana Novotna at Wimbledon, and Lindsay Davenport at the US Open.

It was the first time that had happened since 1990, and only the second time since 1966. Rafter versus the unseeded Philippoussis also meant that there were eight different men's singles finalists at the four majors this year. There had been bad blood between the players after Philippoussis dropped out of the Davis Cup team, but sportsmanship prevailed yesterday. As they contested the final, it was difficult to imagine how depressed both men had been after losing early at the Stella Artois Championships at London's Queen's Club shortly before Wimbledon.

The 21-year-old Philippoussis was in trouble in the opening set the moment a break point evaporated in the first game. He double-faulted twice in losing the second game after Rafter had curved an angled backhand round the net post to deny him a game point. Rafter had three break points for 4-0, Philippoussis, 6ft 4in, saving the game with a high backhand volley. Rafter served out to love after 36 minutes.

Rafter's volleying began to falter in the second set. He missed with two of them when broken for 1-3. Nerves then threatened Philippoussis when he served at 5-3 to level the match, surviving three double-faults and saving two break points before holding.

After serving 102 aces on route to the final, Philippoussis first serve percentage was as low as 56 percent last night. He delivered only five aces - but was guilty of 13 double faults. He was under pressure in the third set, saving two break points in the second game, during which he worried his supporters with a Becker-style dive on the concrete court. Rafter displayed frustration in the fifth game, throwing his racket down after being taken to deuce from 40-0.

Although Philippoussis contrived to save three more break points in the sixth game, Rafter lured him into netting a forehand on the fourth, for 4-2, and into hitting a low forehand volley long on the second set point after he had double-faulted to 0-40.

Philippoussis played a dreadful service game in being broken to love for 0-2 in the fourth set, belting a forehand over the baseline on the last point. The match sped away from Philippoussis when he was broken a second time for 0-4. Rafter completed the job after two hours and four minutes.

Rafter advanced to the final at the expense of a limping Pete Sampras. Injury handicapped Sampras from the third set in the semi-final on Saturday night, Rafter going on to win, 6-7, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3. It is not the first time Sampras's elegant style has been cramped in a major championship, which makes it all the more remarkable that he was won 11 Grand Slams.

Unlike Mark McGwire, baseball's Mister 62, Sampras was unable to deliver a magical number for the tennis public. He will try to equal Emerson record of 12 Grand Slam singles titles at the Australian Open next January. If he does, the feat would lead to a tantalising challenge for No 13 at the French Open or Wimbledon.

A strained muscle high in his left thigh reduced Sampras to a limping victim of Rafter's exciting attacking style. Spectators may have wondered if the Californian had retired when he left the court when leading 5-2 in the third set. It transpired that the position of the injury meant that he would have to remove his shorts for treatment. The referee's room provided refuge.

Sampras returned to secure a two sets to one lead, but it was soon evident that his tournament was a good as finished. "The adrenaline was the only thing that kept me going," Sampras said. "It was just bad luck."

Having edged the first set tie-break, 10-8, Sampras was unable to fend Rafter off in the second set, after which the match seemed to be boiling nicely. Then it happened. "He hit a backhand volley at 4-2 in the third, and I landed on my left leg and basically pulled my quad," Sampras said. "It shocked me a little bit, and then I wasn't sure I was going to be able to continue to play," the Wimbledon champion added. "Anytime I put any amount of serious weight on my left side, it was giving me problems. Things were going pretty well until that point. Patrick played well. I played a solid match. But then I was struggling out there."

Although Sampras keeps his place as the world No 1, his reign is under threat again as he wonders if he will be fit to beat off his rivals as he tries to end the season as the top man for a sixth consecutive year.

"As hard as I am on myself in putting so much emphasis on these major championships, I felt like I had a good opportunity to win here," he said. "Anytime you win Wimbledon, which in my mind is the biggest one we have, you can't complain about the year. But it's disappointing to lose here. Now I've got to find some sort of motivation to go over to Europe [for the indoor season] and deal with that situation."