Jun 28, 2008

The Nirmal Shekar Column

London: To Lleyton Hewitt, his momentous brush with Wimbledon glory must seem like a distant memory now. And the little Aussie battler knows who is to blame for that.
His distinguished Aussie predecessors such as Rod Laver and John Newcombe had been multiple-champions on the pampered lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis Club in the past. In the event, Hewitt, on winning the 2002 Wimbledon title, might have expected to add a few more.
But a certain Swiss gentleman who got into the habit of defying geometry with his golden right arm had ideas of his own — and has since become a permanent occupant of the most coveted throne in the game. What is more, Roger Federer went on to ‘own’ Hewitt, as they say in the fight game, beating the Aussie 11 times in a row between 2003 and 2007.
“I came in knowing nobody has beaten me 12 times in a row,” said Andy Roddick in Miami in April this year after beating Federer for the first time in 12 meetings.Dirty Dozen
On Monday, in the 122nd Wimbledon championships, Hewitt will get his chance. Nobody has beaten the Aussie 12 times in a row either, and the last thing he’d want is a Dirty Dozen.
In a men’s championship that promised so much a few days ago but has already lost two of its biggest drawcards in Roddick and Novak Djokovic, the fourth round contest between Hewitt and Federer assumes tremendous significance.
On Friday, after a rain-delay of just over an hour and a half, both Federer and Hewitt posted straight set victories in the third round to set up an intriguing clash, although given their head-to-head record some might believe that all the intrigue was of the imagined variety. To be sure, Federer will step in as the overwhelming favourite on Monday. They have met twice at Wimbledon and Federer won both those matches comfortably. But in their last meeting, at the Cincinnati Masters last year, Hewitt lost 7-6 in the third, and despite a sore hip he has been playing well here this week.
If his record against the great man is unflattering — whose isn’t? — then it must be acknowledged that Hewitt is one of the most accomplished grass court players of his generation with a win-loss record of 87-20 on the surface.
Even if he cannot stop the Swiss maestro, Hewitt is capable of offering Federer his first real test in this championship. He has a chance to prove to himself and to the world that he is not a relic; that he still has it in him to compete with the very best on equal terms.Easy win
On Friday, Federer raced past Marc Gicquel of France 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 in an hour and 21 minutes. He started on the wrong foot, losing his opening service game, but motored along nicely the rest of the way. “It is always a challenge playing Lleyton. He is a great player, a guy I enjoy watching,” said Federer. “He is a great competitor. We go back a long time. I think it is an intriguing match for both of us.”
Hewitt, playing Simone Bolelli of Italy, seemed set to match Federer in the brevity of the contest but his 22-year-old opponent from Bologna decided to make a match of it in the third set. Bolelli fought off a matchpoint on serve in the 10th game and took the set into a tiebreak. But Hewitt opened up an early lead in the tiebreak and closed out the match with an ace down the middle for a 6-1, 6-3, 7-6(2) victory.
Hewitt has been serving well all week — he fired 14 aces against Bolelli — and he is playing with typical aggression from the back of the court. But without the high quality ammunition of a Roddick or a Nadal, can this doughty warrior really challenge the master on Monday? If nothing, it is worth a look.

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