Second title for the U.S.

THE smile on the faces of Serena Williams and James Blake holding the Cup said it all. It was neither a Grand Slam title nor an ATP title win, but nevertheless a win the two would remember for a long time. It was the respected and valued Hopman Cup.

THE smile on the faces of Serena Williams and James Blake holding the Cup said it all. It was neither a Grand Slam title nor an ATP title win, but nevertheless a win the two would remember for a long time. It was the respected and valued Hopman Cup. It was a special moment for the U.S. as it claimed the Cup for the second time; the last time it won was in 1997 (Justin Gimelstob and Chanda Rubin were the protagonists then).

Defeating host Australia 3-0 in the final, U.S., the top seed, asserted its superiority in no uncertain terms. As important as the victory was to the U.S., the win also gave great satisfaction to one individual. James Blake, the American, ranked 27 places below the No.1 ranked Lleyton Hewitt, obliterated the Australian's defences in just 64 minutes with searing serves and forehands to triumph 6-3, 6-4 at the Burswood Dome and give the U.S. an unassailable 2-0 lead.

Women's world number one Serena Williams had earlier set the U.S. up for victory, blasting Alicia Molik 6-2, 6-3 but not even she could have expected Blake to punish Hewitt so ruthlessly.

Against all odds, the stylish American produced winner after winner to grind an under-par Hewitt into the ground, his first victory against the Australian in five meetings. Then, in the final rubber, the U.S. pair completed a clean sweep when the mixed doubles combination of Blake and Williams put it past Hewitt and Molik 6-3, 6-2. In fact, the dominance of Serena was the other impressive factor in the U.S.' win. She did not lose a single match in the tournament.

"I was here a few years ago and didn't really feel I belonged... I was kind of a substitute I think," Blake smiled. "Well now I am back, and I really feel I belong," Blake said. "It's the first time I've taken out a reigning number one. Lleyton, may be, wasn't in his best form but I'll take it — my kids and grandkids won't know that when I tell them I beat the number one in the world."

The 23-year old Blake barely missed a shot at the Burswood Dome, firing groundstrokes into the corners, onto the lines and running Hewitt ragged in the indoor arena. Smiling throughout, Blake's demeanour was in stark contrast to that of the sweating, scowling Hewitt who could find no answer to Blake's firepower. The defeat, two days after losing to Jiri Novak in a group match (coming just a week before the Australian Open in Melbourne), marks the first time Hewitt has lost two matches in succession since last March and April when he lost in Miami and Monte Carlo.

Hewitt conceded that his first-serve percentage was still not what he was aiming for. "I felt I have not quite had the rhythm there in the last two matches," he said. "It was there in patches (against Blake), but it just wasn't consistent enough. I felt I had a lot of chances out there, but today he played the big points a lot better than I did."

Hewitt described Blake, whom he beat in a five-set marathon in last year's U.S. Open, as a good player. "I felt I should have beaten him in straight sets there," Hewitt said. "I wasted a lot of opportunities there, and I felt he had played just as well as he could that day. He is a tough player — sometimes very hot and cold. He can play extremely well and have off days as well. Even though I lost to him today in straight sets, I had a lot of opportunities to break serve and get back on serve — but I didn't take them."

The United States had won the mixed team event just once from five finals before Williams and Blake teamed up this year and the pair certainly plans to return next year. "I have had so much fun here," Serena said. "I just must come again."

"I'm glad to hear that, Serena," Blake added. "I am going to book my plane right now. It's really great — it's a wonderful team atmosphere and I have really enjoyed it, really enjoyed partnering James," said Williams after the winners collected cheques for $120,000 ($67,610) each and a pair of diamond-encrusted golden tennis balls. "I have gone a little bit better each time I have played here this week," said Williams, who won all four singles clashes in convincing fashion. "Yes, I am definitely getting better and better, and I am happy that I have got some useful matches under my belt," said Serena.

It was a happy ending, but the journey to the summit was hardly so. Pitted in Group `A', which comprised defending champion Spain, Belgium and Uzbekistan (Uzbekistan defeated Paraguay in the play-off match), the U.S. had its share of anxiety and tension.

It mauled Uzbekistan 3-0 in its first encounter and was made to fight it out against Belgium in the final round-robin match. With two wins (against Uzbekistan and Spain), it was tipped to top the league and reach the final.

While Serena gave a 1-0 lead when she defeated Kim Clijsters of Belgium 7-5, 6-3, it suffered a setback when Xavier Mallise outplayed Blake in straight sets 7-6 (8-6), 6-2. But the U.S. doubles combination of Serena and Blake put it across Mallise and Clijsters 7-6 (8-6), 3-6, 10-5.

The U.S. had earlier blanked defending champion Spain 3-0. Serena crushed Virginia Ruana Pascual (she replaced Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario who announced her retirement recently) 6-3, 6-3, and then Blake overcame Tommy Robredo 6-3, 6-0. The doubles pair of Serena and Blake had no mercy as it rode past the pair of Robredo and Pascual 6-1, 6-4.

While it was a clinical performance by the U.S., the display by the defending champion Spain was well below par. It had an easy passage in the first match against Uzbekistan, winning 2-1, then lost to the U.S. 0-3, and to Belgium 1-2.

Australia, slated in Group `B', along with Czech Republic, Slovak Republic and Italy, had a relatively easy outing. Against Czech Republic, Australia went through testing times. When Molik won her first match overcoming Daja Bedanova 7-6, 7-5, it was widely expected that Hewitt would wallop Jiri Novak. But the Czech turned the tables on the World No.1 with a hard-fought 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win. However, the mixed doubles combination ensured that there were no more surprises as it won 4-6, 7-5, 10-4 (super tiebreak). Australia put it past Italy 3-0 and blanked Slovak Republic 3-0. But the Aussies' hopes of winning the prestigious Cup for the second time (the last time it won in 1999) were crushed by the U.S.