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Hewitt Learns Hard Lesson from Former Champion

September 9, 2000

The nineteen-year-old Australian Leyton Hewitt was the youngest men's semi-finalist at this year's US Open since Pete Sampras himself in 1990. The American was also nineteen at that time, but five months younger than Hewitt, and went on to capture the first of his four American Open titles. Having won four titles himself already this year, including a victory over Sampras at the Queen's Club tournament prior to Wimbledon, young Hewitt must have fancied his chances to go on to the Final. But now he knows that winning Grand Slams is not only about playing high-calibre tennis: much of it is down to good old-fashioned experience.

Having manfully saved four set points in the opening set to force a tie-break, perhaps the younger man thought he had the veteran where he wanted him, as he reached his own second set point. Maybe it was a rush of adrenaline which contributed to Hewitt over-hitting his next shot, when a more subtle one would have served him better. But the ball flew wide, landing a good 6 inches over the line. Seizing his chance in the tenacious fashion which has gained him no less than 63 career titles, Sampras captured the next two points against his opponent's serve, to take the breaker 9-7.

Hewitt's surprise and disappointment were obvious at the time, but later at the press conference he insisted, with the stubbornness of youth:

"I still feel I went for the right shot. I had worked so hard. To have had the point set up and make an error, obviously I felt frustrated."

Players can rarely afford to give this kind of advantage to Sampras, who came into this match with a Grand Slam record of 148 games to 8 - when he wins the first set. Who knows whether Sampras reads his own statistics? Maybe not, but it's always a psychological advantage to win the opener, and if the young Australian had not blown his chance here, perhaps the outcome of the match might have been different.

Instead, Sampras upped the pace in the second set, playing aggressively to gain an early break and take the set 6-4. The deciding set also went to a tie-break, but the assured Sampras won it more easily than the first, 7-5. The American set up match point with an overhead which Hewitt described as 'an unbelievable shot'. Sampras had to back-pedal even to reach the ball, let alone return it accurately. He explained:

"When Leyton hit it, it was going long, but the wind kept it up. If I had let it drop, I think it would have landed in - about a foot in. It was a split-second reaction, to give it a swing. It's kind of strange, because I was ready to let it go. But then I decided to hit it, and pulled it off."

Simple - when you know how. All this passed through the mind of the four-times champion, in half a second. Is it any wonder that the 'new boy' found himself, for much of the match, receiving a valuable tennis lesson from the master.

Hewitt played some good tennis however, displaying some of the big, athletic shots which can make his game so exciting to watch. His ace count exceeded Sampras's own, and he even broke the American in the third set. But again, calm experience won over the hot-headedness of youth. When Sampras broke back, the teenager's frustration got the better of him and he flung his racket away in disgust. So, in the critical moments, both men acted their age, but to the credit of the older man.

Although he felt he had handled himself well in his first Grand Slam semi-final, Hewitt admitted dejectedly:

"I didn't play the percentages. I didn't leave enough margin for error. I had my chances, but I couldn't capitalise."

This was Sampras's verdict after his straight sets defeat of one of the newcomers tipped to put an end to his long reign at the top of the game:

"Leyton has a good future. He is just going to get better and better, and stronger, as he gets older. He has got the tools."

Marat Safin, Sampras's opponent in tomorrow's Final, is another young player who appears to have 'got the tools'. But has he yet enough of the other requisites to win a Grand Slam, which Sampras - winner of more Slams than any other player in tennis history - possesses in such awesome abundance?

Based on AP and ESPN news report


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