Standing like `wall,' Hewitt settles in as Legg Mason champ

Former world No. 1 beats Muller in straight sets

Tennis

August 23, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - It was only the first game of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic final, but Gilles Muller already knew he was facing trouble.

Everything he hit seemed to come back at him harder than the time before.

"Two, three, four good shots in a row and still the ball comes back," Muller said. "It was like playing against a wall. It was killing me."

The Wall on the other side of the net at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center was No. 2 seed Lleyton Hewitt, the former world No. 1 who was eager for a tournament title heading into the U.S. Open next week, and he got it here, 6-3, 6-4.

And if Muller thought he was a wall, well, that was OK with Hewitt.

"My attitude has always been never say die," Hewitt said. "I run down as many balls as I can, and I put as much pressure on my opponent as I can. In this match, I tried to keep him deep because he is hit-and-miss a little from the base of the court."

It was something Hewitt figured out early in his match and something No. 1 Andre Agassi didn't when Agassi lost in straight sets Saturday night and put Muller, 21, in his first ATP final. But the most telling difference was Hewitt's consistency on those returns.

"Agassi was good," Muller said, "but you still knew that sometimes the ball was not coming back. But Lleyton, he was running so fast, everything was coming back, and it made me do some mistakes.

"After the first game, I was feeling tired already, and I hit too hard; I tried to make so many winners. I was maybe a little too tight, a little nervous. I was a little bit excited, too. I wanted to win - and I had a chance, but I lost my serve four times in a set. I don't do that - I can't do that playing a player like Hewitt."

It was Hewitt's third tournament victory of the season but his first in six months. And now he is a week closer to the U.S. Open feeling confident in his game.

"I'm happy where my game is," he said. "But I'm still going to play this week [on Long Island] and sharpen up a couple more areas."

Hewitt is the first Australian to win here since Tony Roche in 1972. He earned $69,200 for his week of work.

"It was a hard match in the sense of not having played him before," Hewitt said. "He's a very talented guy, and if he is serving well, he can be very difficult. I wanted to get to him early. In that first game I had three or four [actually, three] break points. I didn't get one of them then, but that established some pressure and that pressure kept building."

The pressure got to Muller in the seventh game of the opening set. He did not score a point on Hewitt's serve until the sixth game and by then he was starting to miss what appeared to be easy shots. His self-control, and his racket control, began to get away from him. This time, when Hewitt was given a third break-point opportunity, he snatched it when Muller pushed his forehand wide. Hewitt broke him again in Game 9 to put the set away, 6-3.

The second set was less steady for both players as they broke each other five times over the final seven games. Muller broke Hewitt twice when he double-faulted on both break points, but Hewitt got the last break to end the match.

"I feel very happy. I played the best tournament of my career," Muller said. "I beat Andre Agassi yesterday and maybe I have regrets about today. I could have done better, but I have to remember I cannot have everything. I made the final, so I have to be happy with that."

Muller, the first player from Luxembourg to make an ATP final, enjoyed his largest payday - $40,700 - and moved into the top 90 (from No. 124) in the ATP Entry Rankings for the first time in his career. He will, however, still have to play his way into the U.S. Open beginning with qualifying matches tomorrow unless two players in the main field withdraw.

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