Safin in battle of history men

US Open: Muscovite on threshold of greatness as all-court excellence sets up duel with Sampras

The awesome present of tennis will run full tilt into the game's bright future in the final of the US Open today when Pete Sampras takes on Marat Safin. Sampras, at 29, will be in pursuit of his fifth US title while Safin, aged 20, becomes the first Russian to get this far in New York. It is also his first Grand Slam final.

The awesome present of tennis will run full tilt into the game's bright future in the final of the US Open today when Pete Sampras takes on Marat Safin. Sampras, at 29, will be in pursuit of his fifth US title while Safin, aged 20, becomes the first Russian to get this far in New York. It is also his first Grand Slam final.

Safin destroyed Todd Martin, finalist here 12 months ago, 6-3 7-6 7-6, moving his career another significant step forward with a magnificent display which drew from John McEnroe the appreciative comment: "He's the real package", while Sampras, watched by President Clinton, avenged the defeat he suffered in the Stella Artois final against Lleyton Hewitt by defeating the 19-year-old Australian 7-6 6-4 7-6.

It was the 6ft 4in Safin's 18th win in his last 20 matches in a triumphant summer on the North American circuit which has seen him win the title in Toronto, finish runner-up in Indianapolis and now give himself the chance to become only the second Russian - after Yevgeny Kafelnikov - to capture a Grand Slam. The man who first attracted attention by knocking out Andre Agassi at the French Open two years ago has steadily improved his game since then and now he stands on the very threshold of challenging the domination of Sampras. Martin simply had no answer to the Russian's all-court game. "He played the big points better than me and he played the little points better than me," said the 30-year-old American.

Strangely, Safin did not agree. He felt he had played "horribly" because he couldn't concentrate, but went on to say: "To beat Martin in two tie-breaks you have to be a good player. Now I start to realise that I'm not so bad."

On a day of extreme heat and high humidity Martin was clearly at a disadvantage. He was giving away 10 years and had played much of his tennis to get this far in the cooler air of night matches. Yet he made a heartening enough start as he contrived two break points on Safin's serve. But the younger man's nerve, and serve, held and the benefit was immediately obvious as the Russian broke for a 2-0 lead with one of his trademark shots, a two-fisted backhand driven true and straight down the line.

Martin's strategy was obvious. "I had to attack in order not to get smothered," he said. And so he did, but the range of Safin's excellence was shown when he regularly found lobs good enough to clear the 6ft 6in American and land well inside the court. Martin managed a break-back on an errant Safin backhand but it was already obvious that Safin's greater speed and power would be crucial to the outcome.

This was the first time the two had met, and though Martin played some canny stuff, spinning in low-speed serves so cleverly placed that they became aces, he could not deny the eager Safin, who went a set up after 33 minutes with another spot of mix 'n' match tennis, getting to set point with a marvellously masked drop shot and then producing a thunderous forehand winner. With the ability to hit backhand winners either two-handed or, when under pressure, with only one, Safin applied the pressure relentlessly in the second set and broke Martin to love to take a 3-2 lead.

But the American, still managing to wrong-foot the Russian with clever placement, got back on level terms at 4-4 when his gung-ho gallop to the net so startled Safin that he drove an attempted forehand pass beyond the baseline. The man who last year, by his own count, shattered 48 rackets in anger and frustration cracked another one as he bounced it hard, though he escaped the normal code-of-conduct warning for such an offence.

Martin had plenty of fire left and his sixth ace of the match produced a defiant bellow. There was even a glimpse of light for the lofty American as he gained a set point which could have levelled the match. But the imperturbable Safin produced another of his glorious backhand passes and took the set into a tie-break with one of those inch-perfect lobs.

Though he won the opening point of the tie-break, it was the last time Martin was to have his nose in front. He dropped a point on serve with a sloppy forehand volley and Safin clocked up set point by again demonstrating his remarkable all-round versatility. A Martin shot struck the tape and trickled over into his side of the court, but Safin was up to the net in a flash to whip a backhand winner. The distraught American promptly projected a forehand service return beyond the baseline and fell two sets behind. The third-set tie-break was not even close. Martin managed only one point and Safin finished it off in style with his 13th ace.

Hewitt went off like a rocket against Sampras, conceding one point in three service games. He also had a set point in the first tie-break, only to waste it with a forehand pulled wide, and Sampras pounced to take the set in 58 minutes.

The second set went Sampras' way courtesy of one service break and in the third set, despite needing treatment to his left thigh at 6-5, Sampras closed out the match in brilliant fashion, simply overpowering Hewitt in two hours 36 minutes.

Away in Sydney, Vince Spadea will replace Agassi in the US men's singles squad for the Olympic Games. Spadea, No 119 in the rankings, will join Todd Martin, Michael Chang and Jeff Tarango.

* Britain's Lee Childs and James Nelson won the boys' doubles title by beating Tres Davis and Robby Ginepri of the United States 6-2 6-4. It was the first British doubles win in a junior Grand Slam event since David Sherwood and James Trotman captured the Australian Open doubles in 1997 and the first-ever win at the US Open by a British pair.

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