Hewitt heads charge of youth over experience

Australian sensation squares up to Sampras while Martin aims to withstand big-serving Safin

The old crooner Tony Bennett will open the show with "America The Beautiful" prior to tomorrow's men's singles final at the United States Open here, and Bennett will not be the only ageing American on the court if Pete Sampras and Todd Martin have anything to do with it. But the championships may be remembered for a major breakthrough by a new generation, headed by Lleyton Hewitt, 19, and Marat Safin, 20.

The old crooner Tony Bennett will open the show with "America The Beautiful" prior to tomorrow's men's singles final at the United States Open here, and Bennett will not be the only ageing American on the court if Pete Sampras and Todd Martin have anything to do with it. But the championships may be remembered for a major breakthrough by a new generation, headed by Lleyton Hewitt, 19, and Marat Safin, 20.

Today's semi-finals promise a fine balance of youth and experience: a potentially fascinating dual between Hewitt, the Australian action man, and the 29-year-old Sampras, winner of a record 13 Grand Slam titles; and a test of Safin's temperament as the powerful Russian attempts to break the 30-year-old Martin's resilience.

Martin, the runner-up to Andre Agassi last year after recovering from two sets to love down against Greg Rusedski in the fourth round, has had another amazing tournament. He had to save a match point against Spain's Carlos Moya after hauling himself back from 0-2 in the fourth round this time.

In the quarter-finals on Thursday, Martin defeated Sweden's Thomas Johansson, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, after two hours and 32 minutes, which was equivalent to a night off for the Michigan giant.

Although the match contained its share of errors (28 by Martin, 24 by Johansson), these were erased by a bonanza of winning shots. Johansson's 49 (including 23 aces) would have discouraged a lesser opponent, but Martin's 40 winners (18 double-faults) were born of an irresistible determination to keep his show on the road.

"I thought I played a good game in the fourth set to break him," Johansson said, "but, when I had 4-3, he started to play a lot better. He put pressure on me on almost every point."

Martin, an unseeded hero, was asked if, after finding himself a break down in the fourth, he had wondered if he had another five-setter left in him. "I was more curious whether he had any errors left in him," he said of Johansson. "He played a great third set, and at least half, if not more, of a great fourth set. Finally I made up my mind to make him see me a bit more."

At 6ft 6in and 205lb, Martin is not exactly invisible. "I just came to the net a little bit more," he explained. "Putting that extra pressure on him at least changed the rhythm of the match, and maybe also took some of his ball-striking away. I was trying to scrap some ugly points, too. That's part of the game, and it's part of the reason why I've been able to do well here this week."

Safin is 6ft 4in and 180lb, so there is no question that his collision with Martin represents the heavyweight contest of the fortnight: big serves, powerful points. "Against Marat, there's nothing but to expect that," Martin said. "It's a little bit more like grass-court tennis. You understand there's going to be some love games on the other side of the net, but you also understand that if you hang in there, you might be able to create some opportunities for yourself."

It will be interesting to see if there is any sparring, given that the pair have never played each other before. "Playing Todd is going to give me a lot of headaches," the sixth-seeded Safin said. "He has a big serve, gives no rhythm at all, plays very fast and has a very good volley. He's a very talented guy, a big fighter. He can play till midnight. I can't do that."

Sampras breaks records, Safin breaks rackets - 48 last year, 35 so far this season. "You know how much I paid already this year [in fines]? Close to $10,000 [£7,100]. For $10,000, you know what I can do?"

There are times when breaking a racket does nothing to relieve Safin's frustration, when his suspect temperament overwhelms his talent. "Sometimes," he said, "I'm trying to push myself because I can play one set, and the next set I don't know what I'm doing. I need to push myself, because otherwise I'm completely blocked on the court.

"I'm pushing myself to move, to get angry, to get into the game. I get angry in five-set matches. I'm playing, and I'm stopping. I'm playing, and I don't know what I'm doing. But when I'm playing good, I don't have to do this."

Hewitt, the ninth seed, knows that his two-sets win against Sampras on the grass at Queen's the week before Wimbledon is best set aside from his thoughts in preparing for today's contest over the Grand Slam distance. Sensibly, he takes encouragement from his overall progress this year. "As soon as I got in the top 10, I think I really started to believe that I can match it with a lot of these top players," he said. "This is just another step in my career. So far so good in this tournament."

In Sydney, Patrick Rafter wants to end his feud with his team-mate Mark Philippoussis and would even volunteer to share a room with him at the Olympic village. The two have hardly spoken to each other since Rafter criticised Philippoussis for pulling out of July's Davis Cup semi-final against Brazil. But, with the Games a week away, Rafter wants to bury the hatchet.

"I'm very happy to call it quits," Rafter said. "If I see him, I'll be very happy to go up and say 'g'day'. I don't want to make it uncomfortable for him... I'm very happy to sit down and talk and just try and be in a really good team atmosphere."

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