Hewitt crushes Sampras to claim US Open title

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The Independent Online

Lleyton Hewitt ran down shots and ripped one winner after another to earn his first Grand Slam title in Sunday's US Open final, beating a lethargic Pete Sampras 7–6(4) 6–1 6–1.

The Sampras of old, who tore through a daunting draw at the US Open, merely looked like an old Sampras against young Hewitt.

The final was Hewitt's first and Sampras' 17th, but the less experienced 20–year–old Australian was much more energetic. After consecutive wins against former champions Pat Rafter, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin, Sampras appeared to have nothing left for his second match in barely 24 hours.

While Hewitt was more relentless than a ball machine, Sampras had just five winners and 38 unforced errors. He won only half the points when he went to the net as Hewitt passed him with increasing ease.

The rout was reminiscent of Sampras' loss to young Safin in last year's final and is certain to renew talk of his decline, despite the impressive run to the final. Although Sampras bristles at retirement speculation and says he wants to play at least another five years, it's increasingly evident he can't sustain his former level through a two–week tournament.

This is the first year since 1992 he has failed to win a major championship. He has gone 18 tournaments without a title since 2000 Wimbledon, when he broke the record for men's Grand Slam singles titles with No. 13.

For the second year in a row, he came up one win shy of a record–tying fifth Open men's title.

One thing Sampras can still do is size up an opponent. He has long been among the 20–year–old Hewitt's biggest boosters, touting him as a future Grand Slam champ, and now the tenacious golden–haired retriever has made the breakthrough.

He's the youngest Open men's champion since Sampras won his first major title 11 years ago at age 19.

"The kid is so quick it's unbelievable," the 30–year–old Sampras said. "I wish I had some of those legs for this old guy. I lost to a great champion. You're going to see this Lleyton Hewitt guy for the next 10 years like you saw me."

The No. 4–seeded Hewitt earned dlrs 850,000, and the victory may give his reputation a much–needed boost Down Under. He hasn't been widely beloved by sports–mad Australians because of his brash, pugnacious style.

His latest outburst was a tirade during a match last week, when his made ill–advised, perhaps racially tinged comments made headlines. But he moved beyond the furor, made no other verbal missteps and returned the focus to his tennis, which has been terrific. He won five–setters against young Americans James Blake and Andy Roddick en route to the final.

"I got better with every match I've played over the last two weeks," Hewitt said during the trophy ceremony. "It's unbelievable. I've dreamed of this moment and being out here and playing in a Grand Slam final. It hasn't sunk in yet."

Given the opponent and the partisan crowd, Hewitt wisely showed little emotion against Sampras until the final point. The match was won with one last passing shot – a backhand return winner.

Hewitt skidded onto his back with glee. He arose pumping his fist, shook hands with Sampras and then trotted to the stands to kiss his girlfriend, French Open runner–up Kim Clijsters.

The generation gap was obvious as soon as the players walked on the court – Sampras with the white clothing and thinning hair, Hewitt with the bright red shirt and backward cap.

The match went badly from the start for Sampras, who thought he had an ace on the third point before chair umpire Norm Cryst overruled, changing the call to a double fault. Sampras lost the game, ending his streak of holding serve in 87 consecutive games, dating to the second round.

He broke back for 1–1 when Hewitt double–faulted twice, but the Aussie quickly settled down. The set progressed to 6–6 without another break.

In the tiebreaker Sampras hit two forehands long and another into the net, and he floated an easy backhand volley long on set point. He walked to his chair with a frown and when he sat down he slammed his racket into his bag, as if he were done for the day.

He kept playing, but barely. Hewitt won 15 consecutive points on serve during one stretch, passed Sampras five times in one game to break for a 3–1 lead, and the rout was on.

Looking progressively more sluggish and discouraged as shadows crept across the court, Sampras hit one forehand against the backboard and sent a return into the seats behind him. The crowd was firmly behind the American – despite one shout of "C'mon mate!" – but had little to cheer about in the last two sets.