Hewitt drives home his return point

No. 2 seed ousts Falla at Legg Mason Classic

Tennis

August 19, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - It's night, under the lights at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, and No. 2 seed Lleyton Hewitt is still wearing his white cap backward, the bill of it running down the back of his sweating neck.

He looks skinny, but his right arm doesn't. It is so strong it could belong to Popeye, the cartoon sailor man. With an arm like an iron rail, Hewitt wields his tennis racket like a toothpick, his control remarkable, his placement usually superb.

Across the net, No. 120 Alejandro Falla, who had won only his first career hard-court match two days earlier, should have been scared, but at the start, at least, he didn't seem to be.

He exchanged breaks with Hewitt twice in the first six games. But then it became apparent Hewitt, 23, understands his racket and its power. And even on what for him might be considered an off night, he ousted Falla from the tournament, 6-3, 6-2.

"I'd never seen him play before and it took me a little more time to get my game going," Hewitt said.

Hewitt's two-fisted backhand delivers cross-court or down-the-line with equal verve. His forehand unloads straight-on-till-morning bullets that could leave the fans surrounding Center Court at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center fighting whiplash as they attempt to follow the speeding ball.

Hewitt powered his way to the quarterfinals and within three matches of a showdown with No. 1 seed Andre Agassi.

Two weeks ago in Cincinnati, Agassi, who is to play Kristian Pless tonight for a quarterfinals berth, curbed Hewitt's enthusiasm by beating him, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6.

"I didn't play badly against Andre in Cincinnati," said Hewitt. "I won a set. But, I think, every day is different."

Certainly, the days and years have been different for the Australian who ruled professional tennis as the world No. 1 in 2001 and 2002. When he earned the No. 1 ranking at the end of the 2001 season, he was 20 years, 8 months old, making him the youngest player to earn the honor in the history of the ATP rankings.

But after dominating for two years, Hewitt, an independent Aussie, decided to take a break. He spent several months at home in Adelaide and played just 13 tournaments last year. The result of that was his ranking dropped to a low of No. 17.

Tennis experts began to pick at him, questioning whether he could regain the form necessary to keep pace with the current big hitters and No. 1 challengers Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Hewitt said and continues to say he is not worried about such questions. But he increased his fitness training in January and has played a full schedule this season. His results, 46-13 in match play, have brought him to No. 8 in the ATP rankings.

In his first two matches here, you could see an unusual amount of desire.

Last night, the same emotion was present in the second set, when he broke Falla to go up 3-0. He turned and clinched his fist in the direction of fiancee Kim Clijsters, who was sitting four rows up in the stands. Hewitt has won two tournaments this season, but not since playing in Rotterdam in February.

As the U.S. Open approaches, he'd like another title. And, it is obvious he wants to win the Open, too.

"I chose not to go to the Olympics because I want the best chance possible at the Open," he said.

Also advancing to the quarters yesterday were Cyril Saulnier, 6-3, 7-6 (2), over Gilles Elseneer; Robby Ginepri, who rallied from a set down to beat Harel Levy, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1; and Raemon Sluiter, who outlasted No. 6 Alberto Martin, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 7-6 (2).

(Results, 7c)

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