NEW YORK - Hard to believe that it's been 10 years since Pete Sampras came out of nowhere to win the first of his record 13 major championships at the U.S. Open. Hard to imagine that, at 29, Sampras is considered the grand old man of men's tennis.
One more thing: Sampras is still hard to beat.
Facing set point in his first-set tiebreaker yesterday in his semifinal match against Lleyton Hewitt, Sampras took advantage of a sloppy forehand volley by the 19-year-old Australian and turned it into a 7-6 (9-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) victory.
It pushed Sampras into today's final against another upstart, 20-year-old Marat Safin of Russia. The sixth-seeded Safin moved into his first-ever championship match at a major by beating American veteran Todd Martin, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-1).
Asked if he held off the future of tennis, Sampras smiled.
"For another day," said Sampras, who'll be going after his first Open title since 1996 and the fifth of his legendary career. "We're looking at two young guys who are going to be around for many, many years."
Playing before an appreciative crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium that included a long list of celebrities and dignitaries topped by President Clinton, Sampras showed that he is not ready to relinquish what he later called "my court."
The match might have turned in that first-set tiebreaker, in which Hewitt never trailed until losing the last three points. The biggest of those points came with Hewitt leading 7-6, when he came to the net and wound up blowing the easy volley.
"I was pretty lucky to get out of it," Sampras said. "I had four set points, a couple of break points. He missed a forehand, a shot he normally doesn't miss much. He wins the first set; he gains confidence. I got the first set; my confidence grew. Just a huge part of the match."
Said Hewitt, "I still felt I went for the right shots. The breeze was going a little bit that way. I didn't really play the percentages really, didn't allow myself a bit margin of error on that actual point."
Hewitt had a chance to extend the match to a fourth set, but wound up blowing a 3-0 lead in the second set before dropping another tiebreaker. The kid with the backward baseball cap and the wicked backhand got a taste of what others have been sampling for the past decade.
"He comes up with, particularly when he's serving, a lot of big second serves," Hewitt said. "The 30-all, 30-40 points, those kinds of stuff. When he starts getting in a little trouble, you think, 'Maybe I have a sniff or a break here.' That's when he really pounds you."
In Safin, Sampras will face the same kind of player as he did in Hewitt: Another young gun looking for the first major championship of his career. Having come out of nowhere this year with three titles this summer - one in Toronto which included a victory over Sampras - Safin might be even more dangerous than Hewitt was yesterday.
"He knows what I'm going to do; I know what he's going to do," Sampras said. "I lost a tough match. I had two match points. He knows he can beat me, so that's a big bonus for him. He's going to come out not intimidated by the situation. He's going to come out with nothing to lose."
Said Safin, who will become the first Russian to play in an Open final, "It's still something missing. I don't know why, but I want to win, you know. When you get a million, you want 2 million. When you have 2 million you want 5. I feel I need something more, which is to win the tournament."
After all these years, all these victories, all these major championships, so does Sampras. He still carries the memory of last year's Open, when he was forced to withdraw with a back injury before the tournament began. He has the memory of this year's Australian Open, when he was plagued by a hip flexor problem.
But he also has the memory of his seventh Wimbledon championship this summer, which helped Sampras pass the legendary Roy Emerson as the all-time winner of majors in men's tennis.
"At 29, I feel like I've got a lot of good years left in me to really contend for major tournaments," Sampras said. "That's what drives me and keeps me going. I don't have any regrets when I look back on my tennis, all the talent that I had. I want to take advantage of it. I enjoy going out tomorrow and having the packed house, the whole country watching. It's a rush. It's certainly a feeling that I've grown to love."
Like Sampras, it's hard to beat.