It was supposed to be a brilliant end to a mediocre year for Pete Sampras. The four-time U.S. Open champion, who aced his way through the two-week tournament — blowing past three former Open winners en route to Sunday’s final — was poised to extend his record of 13 Grand Slam titles.
But on the 11th anniversary of his first U.S. Open title, with the capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium behind him, Sampras was reduced to a very old shadow of his former self.
Twenty-year-old Lleyton Hewitt of Australia chased down every Sampras offering and demolished the former champion 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-1.
Hewitt’s uncanny ability to get to almost every shot only served to make Sampras’ labored play seem to come from a man far older than the American’s 30 years of age. Both players had finished their semifinal matches only 24 hours earlier, but Hewitt appeared fresher than ever while Sampras struggled mightily.
It was apparent early that the Sampras who dropped only two sets in disposing of Patrick Rafter, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin over the previous three rounds had not arrived. Sampras, who entered the game with an Open-record 87 consecutive holds of serve, was promptly broken in the first game of the match. And though Sampras quickly broke back in the next game, the aura of the invincible Sampras of old was shattered. Hewitt, who was appearing in his first Grand Slam final, looked a little bit shaky in the early going but soon found his stroke and began to blast passing shot after passing shot by the often stunned Sampras.
After taking the first set in a tiebreaker, Hewitt broke Sampras in his second service game of the second set and never looked back. From there, the young Australian’s groundstrokes took over as he allowed Sampras to win only one more game in the rest of the match. The daunting serve that Sampras rode so brilliantly to the final was broken four more times by a mixture of powerful service returns and quickness. Toward the end of the match, even Sampras would shake his head in awe as Hewitt’s returns blew by him one after another.
Unfortunately for Sampras fans, just as Hewitt appears to be a star on the rise, Sampras’ career seems to be fading.
The loss mars what was a fabulous tournament for Sampras. This Open was to be the redemptive moment in a forgettable year for the former champion — a year in which questions about age, motivation and a weak backhand plagued tennis’ best player for the past decade.
Instead, he will finish a year without a Grand Slam title for the first time since 1992.