Sampras stole Hewitt's thunder

ROHIT BRIJNATH

IT didn't matter that Marat Safin was mangling his tenses and tripping on his verbs, it wasn't hard to comprehend his incomprehension.

He had just been beaten by Lleyton Hewitt in the year-end Masters Cup and had been asked, simply, that this pasty-faced, hat-backwards, no-muscles, personality-of-a-wall-clock Australian, what was so special about him?

Safin reply was long but he had no answer. What was there to explain when he could barely understand it himself.

First, he said, "He (Hewitt) has the same shots as everybody. I would not say he has unbelievable groundstrokes".

Then he added: "I can't say that he has an unbelievable serve".

Furthermore he continued: "I can't say that he has unbelievable volley".

Thereafter he explained: "He's fast, yeah, but there's other are fast..."

And finally he concluded: "I think some other players who can play much better tennis (than Hewitt), but they can't make it".

In short, there is not a single stroke (barring, perhaps, the return) that has a Hewittian trademark, no signature shot to sit alongside Pete's serve, Edberg's volley, Lendl's forehand, Noah's overhead. He gets an A+ in nothing but a B+ in almost everything, a player without precise strengths but absent of weakness. He is the fabulous sum of many reasonable parts.

Or as Safin says, putting his finger on it: "(He has) consistence, nothing else. Just dedication and consistence, nothing else"

Well, maybe just a little more than "nothing else".

Ask Roger Federer, who lost to Hewitt in the Masters semi-finals: "It's just incredible what he gets back and makes you play another shot. And maybe he's not returning very aggressive, and I think Agassi and Safin have better returns, but Hewitt is the worst to play because he's going bring back more returns than the other guy".

Ask Juan Carlos Ferrero, and yes, he lost too in Shanghai, in the final, after twice leading by a break in the fifth set: "He never do full mistakes in important moment (i.e. He doesn't screw up on big points). He always be there, you have to win the point, he never going to miss the ball. Maybe I have to learn from him".

The pack is bowing, they are acknowledging their master. The resignation in their tones, and defeated bow to their shoulders, are evidence that Hewitt's game is not as innocuous as it looks. A legacy is being built here.

Boris Becker never finished the year No.1. Mats Wilander did it only once. So did Jim Courier. And Agassi. Now the in-your-face, ceaselessly-courageous, endlessly-precise, constantly-patient, Hewitt is year-end No.1 for the second time. And that, as Sampras always said, is harder than the first time.

People said last year was a fluke, Sampras was too old, Kuerten was beginning to hurt, Safin was finding himself, Agassi was unlucky, Roddick was growing up, Federer was nearly ready, Ferrero on his way.

So what's this year's excuse? There is none.

This year the other nine players in the top 10 are Agassi, Safin, Ferrero, Moya, Federer, Novak, Henman, Costa and Roddick. Only one of this nine, Moya, for reasons purely of style not of talent, has a superior head-to-head record against Hewitt. That is not luck.

This year Hewitt began with chicken pox, has been nagged by a virus for months, and constantly battles a breathing problem. Yet he outlasted Safin, Federer and Ferrero in Shanghai when their matches came down to the wire, winning every test of composure, every examination of athleticism. That is not luck.

This year Hewitt changed coaches from Darren Cahill to Jason Stoltenberg, he fenced with the ATP, he was chastised by Ken Rosewall for not taking responsibility, he was asked silly questions about whether he wanted Kim Clijsters to change her name after marriage and become Kim Hewitt, and through all these turbulent times his game remained as precise as a smart bomb. This is not luck.

This year was his. He had an answer to everything. For the rest there were only questions:

Who remembers which player won the Australian Open except Mr and Mrs Johansson? Did Agassi have a Grand Slam left in him or was the father of Jaden jaded? Was Roddick a poser or a player and would his shoulder hold up to that serving motion? Was Ferrero's choke against Costa in the French Open an aberration or a sign?

Would Goran and Rafter cross swords and serves again at Wimbledon or were they signing pension papers? Was it true that Waterford had a new line of crystal called Safin because nothing in sport is quite as unstable? Was doubles dying, power overrated and did Hewitt and Costa and Agassi and Johansson, all under six feet, hold back the extinction of short players?

But here's the problem, the injustice of it all. Hewitt won Wimbledon, manhandled his peers, but the memory of 2002 will not be his. The number that mattered this year wasn't 1, his ranking, or 5, his tournaments won, or $4,619,386, the money he earned. Twenty years from now they'll remember 2002 for a number that had nothing to do with Hewitt. As in 14.

It is the number that defines the impossible, as it much as it describes genius. The first cannot be achieved without the second, and a 14th Grand Slam title for Pete Sampras at the US Open was just that.

For two years and more every cynic who never held a racket, and some who did, insisted he was too slow, too old, too unmotivated. It was suggested it was brazen for him to go on, when all along the only impertinence was ours to suggest his retirement.

Sampras' victory, an explosion of emotion for a man who rarely stirred many, was vital. It reminded us, the watchers, the writers, that we know nothing about greatness. We cannot even begin to understand the gifts and valour we don't possess.

To watch him win at the arena where he began 10 years ago was poetic. He was heavier than 1990, slower, more given to clenched fists and a beating of the chest. But the tongue still flickered, the shoulders bowed him into a question mark and the sweat was still swept off the eye by his fingers. He was a greying poet, his fingers touched by arthritis, but his verse remained the most splendid.

I am thankful, always, I was born in this time to see him play, for I shall be dead before another such player comes around.

Hewitt may have owned the year, but Sampras stole our hearts.