He had been so poised. For nearly two hours on Centre Court last
Sunday, Australia's Lleyton Hewitt was businesslike and
measured, disposing of Argentina's David Nalbandian, 6-1, 6-3,
6-2, to win his first Wimbledon title. It was only when he was
presented with the trophy that his hands started to shake and
his palms began to sweat. As he looked at his reflection in the
chalice, envisioning his name engraved alongside those of
forebears such as Don Budge, Rod Laver and Pete Sampras, his
grip slipped. Hewitt reacted just in time to catch the trophy by
the base before it fell to the grass.
It was an appropriate end to a teetering, topspin-turvy
Wimbledon that defied convention at every turn. All but two of
the top 16 men's seeds--including Pete Sampras and Andre
Agassi--were bounced before the fourth round. The men's
quarterfinals had a decidedly Univision feel, as three! of the
last eight men standing were from South America, that bastion of
grass-court tennis. The men's champion turned out to be a
counterpuncher who goes entire sets without experiencing enough
wanderlust to leave the baseline. A man allegedly stalking
Serena Williams was apprehended after he crashed his bicycle
into a police surveillance camera. Losing men's semifinalist
Xavier Malisse was treated for a mid-match panic attack. Perhaps
most surprising, when Serena and Venus Williams inevitably met
in the final, they played an exceptional match.
One of the few signs of normality was the persistent drizzle
that "buggered up" the second-week match schedule and, tradition
be damned, renewed calls to install a retractable roof over
Centre Court. "It's under consideration," Wimbledon chairman Tim
Phillips said. The occasional spasm of sunlight was, however,
enough to expose the ever-widening gap between the Williamses
and the rest of the women's field. For years many have wondered
what would happen if the sisters took the sport more seriously.
Now we know: Every event becomes the Williams Invitational.
The final was preceded by the usual shabby allegations of
not-so-divine secrets of the sisterhood, such as match-fixing.
Asked to predict the winner, France's Amelie Mauresmo, who was
crushed by Serena in the semis, said coyly, "You have to ask
them." Interviewed on French television, she added, "I don't
have any [inside] information, but I think it's fixed." There
were also suggestions that Serena's game would be affected by
the arrest of Albrecht Stromeyer, a German who had allegedly
been pursuing her for months and was arrested on July 3 outside
the All England Club grounds.
July 14, 2002
The skeptics were wrong on all counts. Unlike in the previous
eight Williams family affairs, the quality of tennis in the
final on Saturday was high and the atmosphere, at times,
electric. For 78 minutes the sisters exchanged tracer fire from
the baseline. On a surface that accentuates their power, they
combined for 47 unforced errors, fewer than half as many as they
committed in the French Open final four weeks earlier. In the
end Serena served better and didn't buckle on the big points,
closing out a 7-6, 6-3 victory with a percussive service winner.
Serena, who achieved the No. 1 ranking with her semifinal
victory, has won 36 of her last 40 matches, including three
straight over her big sister. While she asserted that her game
and Venus's are "so close right now," it's clear that Serena has
become the best player in women's tennis.
The Williams sisters may be armed with insurmountable physical
power, but Hewitt has a weapon every bit as formidable: his
will. Endowed with enough mental strength to bend spoons on
changeovers, Hewitt competes as fiercely as any player since
Jimmy Connors. As the other men's seeds were falling, Hewitt
wafted through his first four matches without dropping a set. In
his lone tight match, a quarterfinal throwdown with Holland's
Sjeng Schalken, Hewitt summoned his best tennis when it mattered
most and won 7-5 in the fifth set. "Even when you're up," says
Schalken, "you always have the feeling he's going to come back."
On the court Hewitt is also tennis's latest enfant terrible. He
snarls constantly. He swears audibly. He stares down the
opposition. He pumps his fist and thumps his chest and screams
his mantra, "C'mon!" even after opponents' errors. Ordinarily
it's the kind of behavior that invites physical retaliation. But
Hewitt, like Pete Rose, is grudgingly admired by his peers for
his full-bore intensity. "I don't know of any player," says
fellow Australian Todd Woodbridge, "who doesn't wish he had some
of Lleyton's mongrel."
Where does a kid raised in sleepy Adelaide in relative
affluence--the family had an artificial grass tennis court in
the backyard--get his junkyard-dog sensibility? Lleyton's
father, Glynn, a former Aussie Rules footballer, thinks his
son's slight build (he's listed generously at 5'11", 150 pounds)
imbued him with the need to prove himself. Lleyton believes it's
innate. "I've always been like that," he says. "I draw strength
from clutch situations."
In addition to his doggedness, Hewitt is the fastest player in
tennis, the best lobber and, arguably, the best returner. The
serve-and-volley game, once thought to be a pre-req for winning
Wimbledon, may be dying. The Centre Court grass was forensic
evidence of that: It was green and healthy near the net and trod
to dirt near the baselines. The "power baseline" game of players
such as Hewitt is hastening the demise of the net rusher. "I
don't mind pace," says Hewitt, the first backcourt player to win
Wimbledon since Agassi a decade ago. "Even if you hit a good
serve and come in, I can make it tough for you with my return or
my passing shot."
One attacking player who learned as much was Tim Henman, the
progenitor of Henmania, a contagion that afflicts England each
summer for a period never lasting longer than 12 days. The best
bet to become England's first homegrown champion since Fred
Perry in 1936, Henman (a.k.a. Our Tim) bears the weight of an
entire country on his scrawny shoulders each year at Wimbledon.
The day after Sampras and Agassi both lost in the second round,
the headline in the Daily Mirror read NO PRESSURE, TIMBO, BUT
CHOKE NOW AND WE'LL NEVER FORGIVE YOU. A few days later 13.1
million households, a BBC Wimbledon record, watched Henman's
fourth-round win over Switzerland's Michel Kratochvil.
Henman is an unlikely object of so much attention. He has a
fluid, aesthetically pleasing game and is at his best on grass,
but he has never so much as reached a Grand Slam final. And
though he is by all accounts a good bloke, Henman won't ever be
confused with a matinee idol. Against Kratochvil he nearly
became the first player ever to retire from a match because of
... gas. At one point ATP trainer Bill Norris rubbed his stomach
because, Norris said, "I thought a darned good fart would do him
a bit of good."
Against Hewitt in the semifinals, Henman was neither flat nor
(we assume) flatulent. He simply lost to a better player. Time
and again he approached the net only to watch Hewitt's shots
whistle past him. On other approaches Hewitt unspooled topspin
lobs that landed inches inside the baseline. "Too good," Henman
said repeatedly during the match. Afterward he conceded, "Right
now, it's pretty obvious that Lleyton is setting the benchmark."
Hewitt's ascent is both a blessing and a curse for men's tennis.
At a time when the men's game is mired in parity and too many
top players are not bothered by hideous losses (red courtesy
phone for Marat Safin), Hewitt is a reliable winner. Dating back
to his victory at last year's U.S. Open, he has been a cut above
the rest of the field. What's more, at 21 he has yet to enter
On the other hand, the men's game is hungry for a top player
with charisma and charm, two qualities not generally ascribed to
Hewitt. When not on the tennis caravan, he returns to Adelaide,
where he still lives with his folks. Agassi had a private jet at
21; Hewitt doesn't even own a car. At Wimbledon he spent his
downtime at his rented home near the All England Club, watching
webcasts of his beloved Adelaide Crows "footy" team and lazing
about with his girlfriend--Belgian tennis pro Kim Clijsters--and
his best mate from home. "The celebrity stuff?" says Hewitt. "I
don't have much use for that kind of thing."
Nor does Hewitt have much use for the "face time"--media
obligations and corporate grip-and-grins--that goes with being a
star. His handlers go to great lengths to minimize his time in
the public eye. Frustrated by his inaccessibility, the
Australian press has nicknamed him Satan Hewitt. "People see
Lleyton on the court, and he's this competitive beast," says
Aussie Davis Cup captain John Fitzgerald. "But he's really just
a normal kid, maybe a bit shy."
He didn't seem shy after he finished off Nalbandian the Andean.
Hewitt fell flat on his back and then rose to climb into the
players' box. The mask of fury he wore on the court had melted
into a stunned smile. "As soon as the match was over, I just
sort of went numb," he said. "I'm thinking, Wimbledon is over,
and you won it."
Hewitt was still grinning broadly as he passed under the Centre
Court doorway famously adorned with Kipling's lines, "If you can
meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two impostors
just the same." Given what he endured to win one of the wackier
Wimbledons in memory, other lines from the same poem seemed even
more fitting: "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are
losing theirs...you'll be a Man my son!"
Time and again, Henman approached the net only to watch Hewitt's
shots whistle past him. "Too good," Henman said repeatedly.