Pete Sampras is in full pursuit of the last hurrah. With a record 13 Grand Slam titles in his tennis bag, the 30-year-old American hopes to add one more, just one more, in this afternoon's final of the US Open, where he will face Australia's Lleyton Hewitt.
Success today would not only be sweet but sweatily deserved, since in the last three rounds here Sampras has defeated in turn all the men Pat Rafter, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin who have held this title since he last captured it in 1996. The defeat of Agassi in the quarter-finals was the memorable one, but yesterday Pete again brooked no argument from the defending champion, routing the 20-year-old Safin 6-3 7-6 6-3.
It was a sour occasion altogether for Russia, with Yevgeny Kafelnikov humiliated 6-1 6-2 6-1 by Hewitt in the other semi-final, the worst loss in a semi-final at this event since the game went open 33 years ago. Hewitt, seeded fourth, is appearing in his first Grand Slam final; it will be Sampras' 17th (only three of which have been lost). The American, 10 years Hewitt's senior, seeded only 10th here and without a tournament victory since last year's Wimbledon, has strained every sinew as the possibilities opened up for the sort of gesture which could see him decide to bow out on a triumphant note with his fourth US Open crown.
He is well aware that the lightning-quick Hewitt will present a much different challenge from the mercurial Safin. "Lleyton is a great competitor," he said. "It is like playing Michael Chang."
Solidly backed by a sell-out crowd in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, Sampras was in spectacular form as he bulldozed through the first set in under half an hour, conceding only six points on serve. Safin assembled his game so impressively in the second set, as Sampras began to tire in the heat, that he even held a set point at 5-4. This was repelled and when it went to a tiebreak a couple of loose shots from Safin ensured Sampras' adrenalin needed no better boost than a two-sets lead.
He summoned his draining energy one more time, broke for a 3-1 lead in the third set and held on comfortably, winning in one hour 54 minutes with his 20th ace as he held serve for a record 87 straight times.
Hewitt sauntered to his first Grand Slam final in an hour and 23 minutes, yet he had forecast that his contest would be "awfully tough" because of Kafelnikov's ability to raise his game in the big tournaments. How wrong he was. The Russian from the Black Sea resort of Sochi was in black, bleak despair as he self-destructed virtually from the opening game, blowing a 40-love lead and allowing Hewitt to break serve.
Long before the end, the crowd were convinced Kafelnikov had given up the ghost. Not so, he insisted afterwards. "Believe me, I tried very hard. I had a game plan, to be patient, but realised halfway through the first set it wasn't working. For every question I asked Lleyton had an answer. When he is that hot it is difficult to beat him."
Not difficult, Yevgeny, impossible. Hewitt does not need assistance from anybody to run away with matches and he received incredibly generous help from Kafelnikov. There were 37 unforced errors from the Russian racket. There was not a single backhand winner and his 22 net rushes were successful on six occasions.
By the end Hewitt, greeted with a scattering of boos because of what were claimed by some to be racist remarks in a second-round match a week ago, was a good guy once again. Clearly unable to believe his good fortune in having such an easy time, Hewitt was realistic about the final: "I am going to have to have my running shoes on against Pete."
Perhaps Hewitt had a premonition of what was about to happen when he opted to receive serve in front of a stadium virtually empty for what had been hyped as the greatest-ever day at the US Open. But it was, after all, eight hours before the Williams sisters were due on court, and the seats did begin to fill during the first set. Just as well, since latecomers would have missed the match altogether.
The expectation had been that this would be a slog between a pair of baseline artists. Far from it. Kafelnikov started off by playing with a freedom which rapidly escalated into total abandon and recklessness. All Hewitt had to do was keep the ball in court, at which he is very good. But the Aussie's game is about much more than that. He explores the angles, goes for the corners, harries the opposition. However, this time there was no need for fist-pumping as Kafelnikov subsided before his eyes.
Perhaps Kafelnikov had been infected by Hewitt's tendency to hurry things along. He hurtled towards oblivion as if on skates, the only glimmer of hope coming at 1-4 in the opening set when he held three break points as Hewitt double-faulted twice. But the Australian dug himself out, courtesy of an ace and Kafelnikov errors, broke the Russian for the third time and pocketed the opening set after 24 minutes. If people were waiting for Kafelnikov's ship to steady, they waited in vain. Hewitt, mixing his game beautifully between flat, raking groundstrokes and searching, lofted shots to the corners, kept his man on one back foot. The other, it was clear was already in the grave of this match. Hewitt's only flaw on this day of perfection, was an inability to serve better. There were five double faults and a first-serve percentage of only 58.
When he erred, Hewitt plucked fiercely at the strings of his racket, an alternative, perhaps, to an expletive. But there was no need for concern. If Kafelnikov charged, he was passed. If he opted to rally, he was outhit. But, as he pointed out, "I've been around a long time. I'm sure I'll get over this."
Men's semifinal results
(10) P Sampras (US) beat (3) M Safin (Rus) 6–3 7–6(5) 6–3
(4) L Hewitt (Aus) beat (7) Y Kafelnikov (Rus) 6–1 6–2 6–1Reuse content