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Once easy to dislike, Hewitt inspired in near-upset of Soderling


One of the top touring bands of this summer is New Kids on the Block. How can this be? Because tastes and ascetics are fungible. The music you hated as teenager could, conceivably, become enjoyable later in life. Just as the movies you once enjoyed often failed the test of time. And books are often better or worse -- but seldom equal -- in re-reading.

The aesthetics of tennis players change as well. Some of us got a vivid demonstration of this today on Centre Court. When he was winning Grand Slams (gulp) a decade ago, Lleyton Hewitt was easy to dislike. His game was largely defensive, predicated on speed and consistency, with little in the way of flair and artistry. His bona fides as a competitor were unquestionable every winner punctuated with his signature yell, C'mawwwwn! But what was "guts" to some was simply "bile" to most. He fought with players, fought with officials, fought with the ATP, fought with Tennis Australia and seemed to singlehandedly keep the Australian plaintiff bar in business with his various legal disputes. As the superb British columnist, Simon Barnes, once put it, Hewitt had a "me against the world" attitude and was surprised to find himself outnumbered.

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But then was then. We've changed. He's changed. And here is Hewitt today: he's a 30-year-old father and husband who -- despite his Grand Slam pedigree -- is outside the top 100, wringing whatever he can from his career. He's consigned to outer courts but doesn't play the do-you-who-i-am? card. His body is in a constant state of rebellion, but he tries to play, absent complaint, through injury. If he's not the player he once was, he still has a taste for battle.

Hewitt played Robin Soderling on Centre Court today. This was precisely the kind of player Hewitt beat in his prime, a bigger hitter but lesser competitor. With two members of the Aussie tennis monarchy -- Tony Roche and Pat Rafter -- looking on, Hewitt won the first two sets. Then some combination of age, his body, and the occasion caught up with him. And, of course, Soderling hits the hell of the ball. Hewitt lost sets three, four and five.

If there was something touching about 40-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm competing against time (and Venus Williams) yesterday, there was something comparably poignant about watching Hewitt today, the great battler of his day, lose his flame in the fifth set. For most players similarly situated, this is the kind of result that has you contemplating career 2.0. Hewitt? Not so much. ""As long as I'm prepared to do the hard work and go through all the pain and mentally up and down after surgeries and still get in the gym and do all the hard slog, then you know something's right," he said afterward. "You know, you're retired for a long time once you're retired." Root against this guy now? C'mawn.

Onward ...

Am I the only one that thinks the "grunting" has gotten out of hand? I cannot watch any tennis match that involves Maria Sharapova because of her annoying grunting. And I would have to think that her opponents feel the same way. Can't the "powers that be" put an end to this? I like watching Wimbledon, but will not watch any of the women's matches, especially any match involving Sharapova.--Pete Richard, Tampa, Fla.

• No, it's not just you. Hot topic. Victoria Azarenka, also known for her arias, was banished to a back court. The commentators speculated that it was because of the noise factor. Hmmm. Helen of Philly asked a good question: "Do you think the tournaments could use court assignments to discourage shrieking -- grunting doesn't really capture what we're talking about here -- and are court assignments enough of a status symbol that players might respond?"

You should have pointed out that Date Krumm has awesome fitness levels. Also, I think it's ironic that you've always advocated for short matches but you're among the first to (correctly) hail the long, competitive matches as being of the highest caliber. --Reena Khanna, Jersey City

• Agree. (As read Frank Carvaliho points out, KDK ran the London Marathon in a time of under 3:30.) I'd like to see the men play best-of-three the first week, but it's not for aesthetics. It's to spare injuries and withdrawal and unnecessary wear and tear on their bodies. (And it would appease the television gods.) I don't think anyone wants to see tennis reduced to speed chess. But at a time when the sport has never been more physically demanding -- name a player other than Federer who hasn't missed time for injury over the past 24 months -- why make them play best-of-five matches during the first week?

Shame on Tim of N.Y. for asserting that Safin beat Sampras and Federer in Grand Slam finals and shame on you for not catching the obvious error in that statement. Safin did knock off Federer in the 2005 Australian Open semifinals when Fed was at or close to his prime (one of the best matches of the last several years) but he beat Hewitt in the finals. Not that that necessarily diminishes Safin's accomplishment, but still, the only players with the distinction of beating Fed in GSFs are Nadal and Del Potro. Tsk Tsk. --Dawn R., Chicago, Ill.

• Consider us tsked. I was at that Safin-Federer in Melbourne -- borderline classic -- and I remember match point. Federer slipped, Safin hit a forehand, and, with no play, Federer desperately threw his racket at the ball. There would be no Grand Slam.

What is the record for height differential in consecutive matches? According to the stats on the Wimbledon web page, Del Potro has a combined 22 inches over his first- and second-round opponents. --Dan, Harrisburg, Pa.

• We noticed the same. Hey, Del Potro, pick on someone your own size! The first opponent, Flavio Cipolla, was generously listed at 5-8, Rochus at 5-6. Not surprisingly JMDP won both. Next, he faces Gilles Simon, average height.

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WTHIGOW Davydenko? Except for Doha, Barcelona and Munich, he has not reached the third round at ANY other tournament this year. I thought he's the kind of player who's able to raise his game on the bigger stages, and that his playing style favors longevity. Not that he's the most exciting player ever, but he was always good at creating trouble in the draw (and therefore making the Grand Slams more interesting). --Eric Y., Sunnyvale, Calif.

• One-third body. One-third mind. One-third racket. A real carpenter never blames his tools. But if players were given truth serum -- impossible when there's an endorsement deal in the balance -- I'd love to know how many slumps are attributable to racket switches.

The shot clock idea is a no-brainer? No, the devil is in the details. Even in these highly athleticized, Hawk-eyed times, tennis is still a fairly delicately balanced, nuanced affair. Participants have an expectation of quiet, fans must be settled in their seats, gusts of wind are allowed to pass (especially when they're kicking-up clay-court dust). All manner of distractions are considered appropriate occasions for a pause. And, though returners are supposed to play to the server's pace, they are generally allowed some time to ready themselves (do we really want servers running over to the line to try to sneak one in before the returner is set?). So, the umpire would need to have a "pause button" to interrupt the 25-second clock at their discretion. Unfortunately, that sounds like a recipe for more controversy, not less. --ACW, New York, N.Y.

• It's simple. The umpire hits "play" are the appropriate juncture. The clock winds down. The fans and the players all know the deal. If, say, a fan yells out as the player tosses the ball, the umpire has discretion to stop the clock. Otherwise, the player hits a serve before the buzzer sounds. Or he doesn't and is penalized. (There's a great deal about Nadal that I think is worthy of our respect. But I'm tired of the diplomatic immunity that he gets on this issue.)

Just wondering if you'd read this blog. I think it pretty much sums up the "debate," though I agree with you wholeheartedly that we should all sit back, enjoy and have this conversation in five or 10 years. --Paul Gilden, Chicago, Ill.

• Thanks, Paul. And, yes, we're holding off on the GOAT talk for a while.

Why are you plugging Venus' book? Have you read it? Are you recommending it? --Dale Stafford, Atlanta

• I have read it and I am plugging it. It's quite good, an interesting twist on the conventional celebrity autobiography. And plugging your own book is no fun -- far and away the worst part of the process -- so you try to help those doing the publicity grind.

• Serena Williams will play in World TeamTennis matches in Albany (July 19) and New York (July 20) as a member of the Washington Kastles, against the N.Y. Sportimes.

• Good to see tennis make it on to Parks and Recreation.

• Wendy Tenzer-Daniels of Venice, Fla.: "Best interview so far: Mohamed Lahyani, chair umpire for last year's epic Isner-Mahut match. He was fun, informative and charming. Get him into the broadcast booth!"

• Ken Kelly of Oviedo, Spain: "I've been using this site to watch Wimbledon online here in Spain: and it has been working great."

• A few of you also noted:

• Just a reminder everyone read this great Federer piece.

• Sam of San Diego: "About lucky netcords, you think 'if you declined to apologize for a lucky winner, you'd be forgiven.' Largely true, but with a notable exception. In his press conference after beating Soderling in five sets over 92 hours, Nadal hinted that Robin Soderling could go to hell after the end of his life. Remember that you also noted it in your May 2009 column? Among Soderling's offenses: He mimicked Nadal by pulling his own shorts; and, he didn't say sorry after hitting a lucky net-cord." Soderling's response? 'Why should I say I'm sorry when it's the happiest moment of my life?'"

• Andrew of New York, N.Y.: "Interesting ranking situation."

• Jan Kooijman of Rotterdam has Long Lost Siblings: Josh Brolin (in The Goonies) and Ryan Sweeting.