Hewitt tops the charts, Sampras wins the hearts

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

LLEYTON HEWITT won the Wimbledon for the first time, clinched the prestigious Tennis Masters Cup and finished the year as No.1 for the second successive season, to be declared the world champion along with Serena Williams, who won all the three Grand Slams she entered.

Yet, Pete Sampras was the sentimental champion, as he won his fifth U.S. Open title, for an unprecedented 14th Grand Slam singles trophy. In an age when the 20-year-olds were ripping the felt apart for hours together, Sampras showed that he was still a great player by becoming the second oldest Open champion, after Ken Rosewall, who won one in 1970 when he was 35.

``This one might take the cake'', the 31-year-old Sampras said, after beating archrival Andre Agassi in four sets in the final. "I never thought that anything would surpass what happened at Wimbledon a couple of years ago, but the way I've been going this year, to come through this and play the way I did, it was awesome. I peaked at the right time," he said.

"Andre brings out the best in me every time I step out with him," said Sampras. The two had played on the Grand Slam stage in the U.S. Open quarterfinals the previous year, and Sampras had won in four tie-breaks, when neither player dropped serve.

"Win this thing," Agassi had whispered in Sampras' ear, after that match then. Sampras did so, a year later.

"He is a good pressure-point player. He senses the important times of the match and puts pressure on you and elevates his game," Agassi said, as he admired his long-time rival, whom he had played right from the age of 10.

Pete Sampras showed that he was still a great player by winning the U.S. Open championship.

Though he had not won a title after Wimbledon in 2000, Sampras had played his best at the U.S. Open the past two years, making it to the title round, before losing in straight sets to Marat Safin in 2000 and to Lleyton Hewitt in 2001.

It was very tempting for Sampras to call it quits, after such a fairy-tale climax for the season, when he beat Agassi, a champion of seven Grand Slams, for the 20th time in 34 meetings, and for the fourth time in five meetings in Grand Slam finals, but he chose to give it a thought and eventually confirmed his entry for the 2003 Australian Open.

Champions know how to preserve themselves, and Sampras has perhaps still got something more to offer his ardent fans, who rate him as the greatest tennis player ever.

Much in contrast, Hewitt was advised to cut down on the number of tournaments by his doctor to preserve his health, as he was spending a lot of energy because of his physically demanding style of play, running down everything and wearing down his opponents.

There is, of course, no doubt that the 21-year-old Hewitt is the best player in the world, especially after he blew away the 20-year-old Argentine, David Nalbandian, for the loss of six games in the Wimbledon final.

The Russian team which defeated France to clinch the Davis Cup.

"I kept looking at the scoreboard to see if it was real. It is an unbelievable feeling. I always dreamt that some day I would be playing for this trophy," Hewitt said.

It was the most one-sided final in terms of fewest games won by the loser since John McEnroe beat Jimmy Connors 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in 1984.

The memorable triumph at Wimbledon apart, the Australian had led the ATP Entry System ranking every week through the calendar year, only the fourth player to do so after Jimmy Connors (1975-76), Ivan Lendl (1986-87) and Peter Sampras (1997).

Hewitt also joined Sampras (6), Connors (5), John McEnroe (4), Lendl (3), Stefan Edberg (2) and Bjorn Borg (2) to finish No.1 in back to back seasons.

"I am over the moon to get this wonderful trophy again. I know Pete Sampras has said a lot of the time that it is a lot harder to hold the No.1 position and there is no doubt about that," Hewitt said.

Spaniard Albert Costa's long wait for a Grand Slam title came to an end as he won the French Open outclassing compatriot Juan Carlos Ferrero.

It was truly an unforgettable climax for Hewitt, as he beat Marat Safin, Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero in tough battles in the Tennis Masters Cup to affix his stamp of authority.

"It doesn't get tougher than those three matches. I think maybe a couple of three-hour matches and a four-hour match nearly. I don't know how I held up at all, considering the way that I have been feeling the last few weeks. I can put my feet up and go on holidays. It will be great. Can't wait," said Hewitt, quite relieved and equally proud of what he had accomplished.

Hewitt's girlfriend, Kim Clijsters, rounded up the year nicely by winning the women's year-end championship, beating the unbeatable player of the year, Serena Williams. For the connoisseurs, that revived memories of the champion courtship of the good old days of Connors and Christ Evert.

Actually, it was Venus Williams who was courting trouble as she lost the finals to her sister, repeatedly, on the Grand Slam stage, after Jennifer Capriati had saved four matchpoints in the final against Martina Hingis to capture the Australian Open crown.

Serena Williams dominated the women's events and won three Grand Slams — the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

"I really don't know how I won. I was struggling on the court today," Capriati said later.

No woman had ever saved more match points and won a Grand Slam final. The WTA said that the previous record was set in 1898, when Blanche Bingley Hillyard saved three match points against Lena Rice before winning at Wimbledon. That piece of historic achievement by Capriati apart, it was Serena's year for sure. She wanted to win that much more than her sister, as she went up 4-0 against Venus in the season, equalling the career score at 5-5.

"I was just tired of losing," said Serena, who has also equalled her sister's collection of four Grand Slam singles titles. Incidentally, the two have accounted for eight of the last 12 Grand Slam trophies.

"In the beginning of the year, I said, I don't care what happens this year, I want to win Wimbledon. And it was a bonus for me to win the French. But I just wanted Wimbledon. I wanted to become a member of so much prestige, so much history," said Serena after the Wimbledon triumph. She went on to clinch the U.S. Open.

It was a historic moment for sure when the Williams sisters met in the Wimbledon final, as the last such final on the hallowed turf was way back in the first tournament in 1884, when Maud Watson beat her older sister, Lillian.

Serena ensured that there was no change about the younger girl winning, 118 years later.

It was a year when Serena could do little wrong, except right at the end, when she was drained, perhaps emotionally, to be at her best in the year-end event final.

It was a year when Albert Costa's long wait for a Grand Slam title came to an end, as the Spaniard won the French Open, outclassing compatriot Juan Carlos Ferrero 6-1, 6-0, 4-6, 6-3. Costa rolled on the red clay in celebration, and later said, "When I was there, I was thinking, `Did I win?'" even as he announced that he was going to rest a bit, as he was "completely dead."

While Costa captured a Grand Slam title on his 26th attempt, Thomas Johansson won a Grand Slam on his 25th attempt, as he beat Marat Safin in the Australian Open final, in living out a dream. He also became the first Swede since Stefan Edberg in 1992 to win a Grand Slam.

"You cannot compare anything with this. You've dreamt about it. I've seen it on TV but I never thought I was going to be standing there on court," Johansson said.

Kim Clijsters of Belgium rounded up the year nicely by winning the women's year-end championship, beating Serena Williams.

Safin had a memorable finish to the year when his 20-year-old compatriot Mikhail Youzhny pushed Russia to its maiden Davis Cup trophy triumph against France, winning the decisive fifth rubber against Paul-Henri Mathieu 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4. While Youzhny made a dream come true for Russia, which became only the 11th country to win the Davis Cup, after having been a ball-boy in the final against U.S. in 1995, it was only the first time in the 102-year history of the game that a team trailing by two sets in the decisive rubber went on to clinch the trophy.

It was the first time since 1996 when France beat Sweden in Malmo that the final had stretched to the fifth set of the fifth rubber.

"Even when I was two sets down, I knew that I had to just keep playing my game," said Youzhny. Young guns do not know what fear is all about. "This is probably one of the happiest moments of my life," said Safin, who had won both his singles to keep Russia in the running, even as the experienced Yevgeny Kafelnikov lost both his matches, including the doubles in five sets with Safin. Kafelnikov had said that he would retire if Russia won the trophy, but had to make a brave decision to let the young Youzhny have his date with destiny on the final day. "My ego was saying that I should play but I realised that Mikhail would give a better effort than I could. It was tough but I did everything for the best interest of the team. I am proud of what I did — I sent my ego back to Siberia. Sometimes you have got to put your personal ambitions somewhere else," said Kafelnikov, who had to undergo a surgery on his leg, but changed his mind about retiring.

It was a heady season when you just could not get sick of the game, no matter what you achieved, on the biggest stages of the game. It was a memorable season for Mahesh Bhupathi also, as he won the U.S. Open doubles title with Max Mirnyi of Belarus. He had also won the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon with Elena Likhovtseva of Russia, for a truly memorable season when he had to take a bold decision to part ways with long-time partner Leander Paes.

However, it was Mark Knowles of the Bahamas and Daniel Nestor of Canada who dominated the doubles, winning six titles including the Australian from 13 finals. They reached the finals of the French Open and Wimbledon as well, but could not emulate the record of Leander and Mahesh who had made the finals of all the four Grand Slams in 1999.

It was a year when Leander and Mahesh decided to fight their own battles with different partners, with varying degrees of success. They, however, set their differences aside to clinch the Asian Games doubles gold, and that was a good sign for the country's hopes of a gold in the Athens Olympics.

The year was great, but the future looks better.