Hewitt lays down a stylish marker

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Just as with Wimbledon and the US Open, there is a territorial quality about Pete Sampras's attitude towards the Key Biscayne tournament. He has won more matches (39) than any other player, been champion twice, reached at least the semi-finals six times in the past eight years. That sort of thing. The phrase distinguished patron comes to mind.

So it was a decided eye-opener to see a sweat-soaked Sampras revving up the crowd, urging them to get behind him, begging for their backing. He needed it, because he was battling to stay alive against Lleyton Hewitt, the teenager with the best record in men's tennis this year. In the end, Sampras prevailed 6-3 3-6 6-1 and plays Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten, who beat Andre Agassi in straight sets, in today's final. But it was closer than the score indicates.

The opening set had been dominated by the Sampras serve, the second by Hewitt's counter-punching. At 28, Pete was struggling in conditions which seemed to get hotter and more humid when the sun went down, while Hewitt's stride simply got bouncier.

Sampras crunched down his 13th ace to hold serve at the opening of the final set and hunkered down on the baseline to try and extend that lead.

Hewitt had a game point for 1-1 but missed it and then Sampras engineered himself a break-point. What followed was the most dynamic and arresting rally of the match, terminated by a high, thumping Sampras backhand volley. The Wimbledon champion was ahead 2-0 and the crisis had been elbowed aside.

Sampras, arguably the best the game has known but sometimes assailed for absence of charisma, whirled his arms in delight, urging the crowd to get behind him, to lift him onward and upward. And they did. Hewitt is not afraid of any opponent, and has shown it this year with a match record of 25-3. But coping with 10,000 opponents induced a flutter.

Sampras accelerated into the final, ringmaster fashion, with successive aces, 16 of them altogether, to close out a one hour 43 minute victory as hard-earned as anything he has carved out for some time.

Sampras's praise for Hewitt, at 19 the youngest semi-finalist in the event's history, was deservedly warm. "Lleyton has all the intangibles to be a champion. He's got the attitude, he's got the game, he's got the heart. It seems to me he's going to get better and better. He fights very hard, that's what makes him so difficult to play. He's very quick and doesn't give you an inch. A very composed young guy, got a good head on his shoulders."

Hewitt is also a non-stop talker, yattering away to himself as he goes about his business, thrusting the head forward like an arrogant rooster and pumping his fist to get himself motivated. With the additional factor that he wore his night-game gear, all black, he was custom-made for the baddie role.

But it didn't happen. The young ones in the crowd got behind the Australian, though no one seemed to know his first name. Those familiar, beseeching screeches of "Peeeeete" which filled Crandon Park were matched by yells of "Hewitt". Perhaps Americans can't get their heads around a name like Lleyton.

The first set offered little hope for Hewitt or his supporters. Sampras dropped four points on serve and wrapped it up in 28 minutes, serving out for it with four aces. "For the first set and a few games Pete was unbelievable," said Hewitt. "He served great. That's as well as I've seen him hit the ball in a while. It was the Pete Sampras of old, that's for sure."

Then in the second set Sampras started missing a few first serves and Hewitt pounced. "I started getting to his second serves and also started reading his first serve a lot better." Two breaks of serve, as many as Sampras had conceded in his previous four matches, levelled the contest, setting up that memorable climax early in the third set.

From 3-1 in the third, Sampras kicked in another gear and the good folk of Florida went away happy. Hewitt, who doesn't take kindly to losing, picked up his bag and stalked off. Pete's next opponent, the Brazilian they call Guga, is of sunnier disposition but also playing beautifully right now. Pete may yet be in need of another bit of crowd appeal.