Hewitt grinds out 5-set win over Blake

After fourth-set slump, methodical, focused play gets top seed over hump

September 01, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- It's all about methodology to No. 1 seed Lleyton Hewitt. Go on court. Concentrate. Forehand. Backhand. Volley occasionally. Turn up the serve. Retrieve. Attack.

Hewitt's focus at Arthur Ashe Stadium in the third round of the U.S. Open yesterday was mind-numbing. Just ask James Blake, the 22-year-old who has become the new darling of American tennis and was Hewitt's opponent in a rematch of their controversial five-setter of a year ago.

"His game wears you down because he gets to so many balls," Blake said. "That puts pressure on you. If it's 40-love, he's going to scrap to win that point. He doesn't care about the situation. Seems like he never cares about the situation. He's just going to play his game. That's dangerous when someone is that confident in his game.

"And because he gets so many balls back, he fatigues you mentally. It makes you go for shots you might not have gone for."

It took five sets, but Hewitt finally, systematically, won, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

But it wasn't as easy as a year ago, when cramps took Blake totally out of the fifth set.

Yesterday, on another cold and blustery day here, Hewitt was up a break in the fourth and that is usually all he needs to finish off an opponent.

But, while the fans, who were acting more like football fans in mid-season form, didn't faze him, they did seem to inspire Blake, who broke Hewitt twice in the set to force the deciding fifth.

A year ago, these two also combined for a five-setter that was disrupted by an outburst from Hewitt that gave rise to the idea that he is a racist.

Hewitt called for several foot faults in tense situations, approached the chair umpire and yelled, "Look at him, look him and tell me what the similarity is," and seemed to be indicating the line judge, who was black, and Blake, who is also black.

Blake chose to take the high road, handling the situation with class, and the incident was put behind the two players in a locker-room conversation after that match.

But some people have long memories, and when Hewitt went up a break in the fourth set, a fan in the upper deck yelled, "James, he's a racist. Don't let him beat you."

It was a chilling moment, one Blake hated. Hewitt was serving and Blake, appalled, turned around and motioned for the fans to cool it. After the match, he approached Hewitt at the net.

"I just wanted to congratulate him and apologize for any negative comments he might have heard from the fans," said Blake, seeded No. 25. "I like loud, rowdy fans, but I also like good sportsmanship. I think we both demonstrated that today. We both laid it on the line and fought to the end.

"The way we conducted ourselves [applauding each other's great shots] is good for the game of tennis."

Though Hewitt lost his serve and the set, he said he didn't hear the comment.

"I stopped because James turned around," he said of pausing in his serve. "I've got no idea. I didn't hear a lot of what the crowd said all day."

When told, Hewitt shrugged.

"You're always going to get some nutters in the crowd," he said. "Can't do much about it."

If the momentary pause bothered him, it didn't bother him for long. At the start of the fifth set, he simply remembered that he had beaten Gustavo Kuerten in Brazil and Albert Costa in Spain in Davis Cup matches. Americans chanting "USA" and calling him names meant nothing.

"I just remembered my favorite movie, Rocky [IV] where he beat the Russian," Hewitt said. "I always feel I play my best tennis in those situations. It's not the easiest thing, but I just block everything out."

When Blake made three straight unforced forehand errors in the sixth game of the fifth set, Hewitt pounced. After getting the break, he raised his own service game to put away the match.

"I was able to step it up then," said Hewitt. "I was able to sort of raise the bar a little bit."

"It was my one really bad game in the match," said Blake, who made 86 unforced errors to Hewitt's 40 in the match. "A really loose game and it was the difference in the match -- one loose game. It's a lesson I'm learning. In a hard-fought, long match, it comes down to one game. It's very frustrating.

"I wanted to show how far I'd come in a year, playing the same guy in the same tournament. But he's come a long way, too. Now, I have to go back to the drawing board and improve a few parts of my game so I can compete with him."

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