The world's best tennis player sat on a courtside bench during today's Davis Cup matches between the United States and Australia, moving only to take sips of water or adjust the white towel he had draped over his head to battle the oppressive 126-degree on-court heat.
A forehand or two might have proved more helpful, but Pete Sampras, who joined the U.S. team late, had declined to step over Todd Martin or Jim Courier and play singles here. So, he could only peer out from under his terry cloth and watch with the rest of the crowd at the Longwood Cricket Club as both of his teammates stumbled.
The eighth-ranked Martin started the afternoon looking tired and awkward in a 6-4, 6-7 (7-1), 6-3, 6-0 loss to 18-year-old Lleyton Hewitt. Courier showed more fight but still lost, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-4, to Patrick Rafter as the United States fell behind 2-0 in the best-of-five quarterfinal tie.
Sampras will not step onto the court until Saturday, when he pairs with Alex O'Brien in the doubles match. The tie concludes with reverse singles on Sunday, although by then the results could be irrelevant.
"People are going to think what they want about Pete [not playing singles], but I'm very comfortable with that decision," U.S. captain Tom Gullikson maintained after today's matches. "Some people can't understand principle-based decisions because they don't have any principles. I don't think Pete would have come on to the team if I had insisted he take a singles spot."
There had been speculation that Sampras would play in Martin's place this weekend, but Sampras did not want to appear to be pushing Martin out of the way. He only joined the team last month after being inspired by the upset victory Martin and Courier pulled off over England in April, noting Thursday that, "It was nice enough for Jim and Todd to let me play."
The sentiment remained gracious even in the wake of today's results, although it likely will prove costly. The United States has a 1-28 record after falling behind 2-0 in Davis Cup play, with its only such victory coming against Australia in 1934. Sampras and O'Brien are scheduled to play Mark Woodforde and Sandon Stolle in what could be the decisive match, although Australian captain John Newcombe said he is considering substituting Rafter for Stolle in an effort to clinch the victory.
"This is as good as it gets," Newcombe said. "The first match was really the key one. It was a tremendous amount of pressure on Todd. We felt that if Lleyton got his teeth into the match, he had an excellent chance to win, and that is how it turned out."
The Australians certainly got off to a strong start with the baby-faced Hewitt, who is eight inches shorter than Martin but showed considerably more jump. Martin did little to help his cause, often looking uncomfortable even with the court's dimensions. He hit forehand after forehand long and hit volleys into the net with alarming frequency.
Martin still had several chances to take control of the match, but Hewitt fought back every time. The key moment may have come in the first set, when Martin wasted a triple break point and let Hewitt escape with his service game. Martin didn't convert a break point until his sixth opportunity, and his serve seemed to be giving him trouble. Several times, he went up 40-0, only to fall to deuce before pulling out games.
Martin appeared somewhat energized by winning the second-set tiebreaker, but Hewitt was overwhelming in the middle of the third set and closed the fourth set quickly. When Martin was told afterward that he had made 79 unforced errors, he answered, "Is that all?"
"I don't have much trust in the stat keepers, but listen, I didn't play well, and I wouldn't make any bones about it," Martin said. "I actually felt better physically as the match went on -- the first set I felt lousy. I was definitely a little shocked by the weather."
The heat was searing, leading several spectators -- and even the on-court cameramen -- to take Sampras's cue and cover their heads with towels. Former president George Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, both among the crowd, declined such drastic measures, although both occasionally left the stands to seek some shade.
Courier seemed to handle the heat better than Martin did. He raced around the court in an effort to match Rafter's serve-and-volley game. But for every point Courier played well, Rafter played a few points better, improving his career record against Courier to 3-0. After the match, Rafter was so thrilled he ripped his shirt down the middle, threw tennis balls to the crowd and slapped hands with everyone on Australia's bench.
"Our confidence isn't going to get any better than this," said Rafter, who said he wouldn't mind playing doubles if asked. "We are going to have a great dinner and a couple of big laughs tonight, but we know we have a big job. We want to try to do this three-nil."
ROUNDUP: In other World Group results, Russia leads Slovakia 2-0, France and Brazil are tied 1-1 and Belgium leads Switzerland 2-0.
In Moscow, Yevgeny Kafelnikov defeated Dominik Hrbaty, 2-6, 6-2, 6-7 (7-3), 6-1, 7-5, in a match delayed because of rival fans fighting. Marat Safin, injured most of the spring, topped Karol Kucera in four sets.
In Pau, France, Gustavo Kuerten outlasted Sebastien Grosjean, 6-2, 6-7 (7-5), 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (7-5), 9-7, in 4 hours 42 minutes. Cedric Pioline eased by Fernando Meligeni in straight sets.
In Brussels, victories by Xavier Malisse and Christophe Van Garsse sent the Belgians to a commanding lead.
CAPTION: Patrick Rafter is 3-0 lifetime against Jim Courier after 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-4 Davis Cup win.
CAPTION: With help of breathing techniques, Lleyton Hewitt fared better in heat than Todd Martin, winning in 4 sets.