NEW YORK (AP) Pete Sampras smiled thinly, the disappointment obvious in his face and voice. He looked grim as he raised the runner-up trophy at the U.S. Open for the second year in a row.
The Grand Slam champion record-holder with 13 of those coveted titles, Sampras spent most of the past two weeks at the Open repairing a tattered tennis reputation. Yesterday, he surrounded the recovery with question marks.
He was a step slow and a shot short as Lleyton Hewitt blistered him 7-6 (5), 6-1, 6-1. For the second straight year, a 20-year-old young gun had too many answers for the old master.
Sampras considered the way Hewitt had handled him, much as Marat Safin had a year ago.
“He was unbelievable,” Sampras said. “The kid is so quick, it”s unbelievable. I wish I had some of those legs for this old guy.
“I lost to a great champion. You”re going to see this Lleyton Hewitt guy for the next 10 years, like you saw me.”
The loss to Safin started a drought of 17 tournaments without a title for Sampras. He went 14 months without a victory and arrived at the Open seeded 10th, surprisingly low for a player of his reputation.
Sampras was angered by the whispers, the suggestion that at age 30, he was on the downside of a remarkable career. He set out to change that perception and for two weeks, he accomplished the mission.
There were victories over past champions Patrick Rafter, Andre Agassi and Safin, each with the feel of a final, in a magical week that put Sampras on verge of winning his fifth Open.
And then, suddenly, on the 11th anniversary of his first Grand Slam victory at the Open, it all came apart.
“To get to this point and not get the grand prize at the end is a little deflating,” Sampras said. “I worked so hard to get here. I got through some tough matches and played some great tennis.”
And then, along came Hewitt.
“I felt fine physically, fresh and ready to go,” Sampras said. “I just ran into another hot player, just like last year. He returned and passed as well as anyone I ever played. He”s got the best return, the best wheels in the game. He”s a fighter. That”s why he wins matches. He competes well.”
The day started badly when Hewitt broke Sampras in the first game of the match, ending a string of 87 games in which he had not been broken. Sampras balanced it immediately but the message had been sent.
“It wasn”t a great start,” Sampras said, “not the start I was looking for. You want to set the tone, put some pressure on him.”
Instead the pressure was on Sampras. He mis-hit more balls in this match than he had all week. The set rolled into a tiebreak, familiar territory for Sampras, who played four of them in his classic quarterfinal victory over Agassi.