Hewitt sets out his silver service
By Robert Lusetich
August 31, 2004
LLEYTON HEWITT is ready, perhaps as ready as he has ever been, to win a Grand Slam.
The 23-year-old South Australian completed a magical lead-up to the season's final major by claiming his fourth title of the year, the TD Waterhouse Cup, on Sunday. The location was about an hour's drive - or, in his case, a short helicopter ride - from Flushing Meadows, where he opens his campaign tonight against South African Wayne Ferreira.
Hewitt outclassed Peru's Luis Horna, 6-3 6-1, to win his second straight championship in his third consecutive finals appearance, the only blemish being a wrenching three-set loss to an irrepressible Andre Agassi in Cincinnati.
The former world No.1, whose breakthrough came in New York three years ago, has won 10 straight matches and taken 15 of his past 16, making him the hottest player in the sport. Beyond the results, he seems much more at peace and comfortable within his own skin.
"My game has come together well, and I'm ready for the Open," he said yesterday. "I know what it takes since I already won it. It's going to be incredible. Seven five-set matches. I am anxious to get going."
His remarkable run vindicates the decision not to compete in the Olympics and shows that he may not only be back to the player he was when he held the top ranking two years ago but, perhaps, an even better version.
In demolishing Horna, who had beaten Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan - the two-time defending champion at the TD Waterhouse Cup - to get to the final, Hewitt once again revealed that his serve, for so long inconsistent and sometimes even a liability, has developed into a real weapon.
It will never be a Sampras-like missile, but, much like Agassi, Hewitt has evolved into a consistent and accurate server with surprising speed, which now guarantees him more cheap points than he enjoyed in the past. Yesterday, he won an astonishing 20 of 22 first-serve points.
As Horna will testify, Hewitt is a handful when he serves well and makes opponents play so many extra balls, getting to shots few even try to retrieve.
Many of Horna's 32 unforced errors yesterday were born out of the frustration of thinking he needed to smack a winner for fear that anything short of that would come right back at him.
Spain's Tommy Robredo, who has had success against the Australian, was blown away with Hewitt's serve while being beaten in Cincinnati. "He's serving unbelievable," Robredo said. "And I didn't (expect) that serve from him."
When Hewitt missed with the first serve, the Spaniard said he had no chance to make rallies with his second serve.
"I think that's sort of my game just developing over time," Hewitt said. "I came on the tour at a young age. Even when I was No.1 in the world, I still feel like there was a lot of areas in my game that I can improve on - obviously, you know, serve more consistently, trying to get more cheap points off it.
"I think I'm serving better at the moment than I've probably ever served."
And not coincidentally, the fourth seed at Flushing Meadows is a viable proposition to add a third Grand Slam title to his resume.
"Hewitt is always tough," said Marat Safin of why most players don't like seeing Hewitt across the net. He's always running, he's always fighting, and he's going to be there for as many hours as he needs to be there.
"I mean, against Hewitt it's a little bit difficult just because he's all the time fighting, and you have to be there for 100 per cent every game, every point, even though if you are winning he can come back from out of nowhere."
Agassi said that Hewitt was also an underestimated tactician who made opponents question their game plans.
"Against a guy like Lleyton, he's going to get his racquet on a lot of serves, he's going to get a lot of balls back in play," said the 34-year-old American, who is seeded sixth in what might be his last real chance to win a ninth major.
"If you play too aggressive, he uses your pace and counter-punches better than anybody.
"If you then lay off too much, he has the ability to step up. There's a lot more decision-making going on out there between the points."
Hewitt, who won the inaugural US Open series with his victory on Sunday - meaning a possible $US500,000 ($716,000) bonus if he wins the US Open - is in a section of the draw that would be daunting if this was a clay-court tournament in South America.
Assuming he gets past a quarter featuring Argentine's David Nalbandian and Juan Ignacio Chela, Chilean Fernando Gonzalez and Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten - and the unseeded Mark Philippoussis - Hewitt may face reigning champion Andy Roddick in a semi-final.
Hewitt has a 3-1 edge in their meetings, the most memorable of those being the 2001 US Open quarter-final which the Australian took in five dramatic sets, although Roddick won in straight sets on grass at Queen's Club this year.
But before such tantalising thoughts can be visited, Hewitt first needs to deal with Ferreira, who will be playing his last Grand Slam tournament before retiring.
"That makes the match even tougher," Hewitt said. "Wayne certainly doesn't want to end his career that early."