Steady as rock, Hewitt rolls in final

Methodical demolition of Nalbandian completes run to Wimbledon title

July 08, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England -- Don't blame Lleyton Hewitt.

It wasn't his fault that Andre Agassi grew old and Pete Sampras got slow.

He wasn't responsible for Marat Safin's waste of talent, Andy Roddick's sophomore slump or Roger Federer's dismal attitude.

He didn't throw the speed bump on the All England Club's vaunted grass courts, transforming one-serve-and-a-cloud-of-dust tennis into a baseline bash-a-thon.

Hewitt is just the uncomplicated No. 1 player in a changing game, a 21-year-old Australian counterpuncher in search of a worthy rival.

Until he finds one, he'll be content with winning big titles.

Yesterday, Hewitt ended the wildest, wackiest Wimbledon in years by predictably winning his first Wimbledon men's crown, routing David Nalbandian of Argentina, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2.

Playing under puffy gray clouds, delayed twice by rain, with a male streaker racing onto Centre Court and providing a little comic relief that had even the stuffed shirts in the royal box in stitches, Hewitt and Nalbandian managed a little less than two hours of tennis.

It was baseline tennis, a bit of Roland Garros rolling right on to Centre Court -- long rallies, changing speeds, inevitable results.

Hewitt may not be an artist, but he is accurate. He may not be one of the greats, but he is one of the gritty ones. Rocky movies motivate him, and two-fisted backhands elevate him. His buzz-cut hair matches his no-nonsense style.

After all the upsets, all the rain delays and all the excitement during Wimbledon's first 12 days, the tournament ended as a coronation for tennis' young king.

"You could probably tell me it's a dream now," Hewitt said. "I'm still a little bit at a loss for words and don't really understand the whole grip of it just yet."

Once a little pugnacious, Hewitt emerged from Wimbledon a little humbled, overwhelmed even that his Australian boyhood dream had come true, that he had grown up to win Wimbledon.

"I kept looking up at the scoreboard to see if it was for real," Hewitt said.

It was. The outcome was as genuine as Hewitt's No. 1 ranking, now confirmed as he added Wimbledon to the U.S. Open crown he won last year.

And he's not about to change his style.

"I've got to think about what it took me to get to No. 1 in the world," he said. "And I'm not going to try to change everything just because I'm No. 1, lose that ranking, lose the reasons why I got to No. 1 and what I'm playing this game for."

"Off the court, I'm shy. I'd prefer to be in the background."

But he's not anymore. He's in the foreground in a sport desperate for a star, a personality and a rivalry.

Hewitt delights in fulfilling the role of the player to beat. But someone else will have to bring the charisma.

He ticked off a list of potential rivals to his No. 1 crown: Safin, Gustavo Kuerten, Federer, Roddick, Tommy Haas and even Agassi.

He even had kind words for Nalbandian.

"The good thing about this is he's not going to be like some of the other clay-court specialists," Hewitt said. "He's going to enjoy playing on grass and want to come back and win this thing someday. He has a chance."

Despite the defeat, Nalbandian was upbeat. Last year at this time, Nalbandian, 20, was losing a semifinal match at a Challenger tournament in Venice. He simply ran out of gas after a terrific run at Wimbledon, becoming the first debut performer in the Open era (since 1968) to get to the men's final.

He remains a promising player despite his atrocious performance in the final. It was, after all, the first time he had played on Centre Court. Tournament organizers actually allowed him to practice on the court the morning of the final, something that isn't usually done here.

He was clearly jittery. He double-faulted on the first point of the match and double-faulted on the first set point. He hit a pair of ill-advised drop shots in losing key service games in the second and third sets.

On a scale of 1 to 10, he marked himself a 5.

"I think I not play very good," Nalbandian said.

But Nalbandian isn't alone in looking bad against Hewitt. The key to Hewitt's game is keeping the ball in play long enough to make his opponent lose his nerve.

Hewitt lost two sets the entire tournament, crushed Britain's great hope, Tim Henman, in the semifinals and rolled in the final.

It wasn't pretty, it wasn't exciting and it wasn't unpredictable.

"I play to win," Hewitt said.

With simple words and simple tennis, Hewitt showed that after two weeks of thrills and spills, Wimbledon produced the right champ.

Everyone else lost, and he survived.

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