Hewitt wins Wimbledon title

Baseline is back

Posted: Monday, July 08, 2002

WIMBLEDON, England -- A fizzle in the drizzle. A Wimbledon final hackers could appreciate and only the most loyal fans could love.

It had as much tension as a snapped string. As much excitement as teatime.

The loudest cheer came for a man who somersaulted naked over the net. At least he provided comic relief. Not that anyone expected anything more.

Lleyton Hewitt was No. 1 coming in and he's No. 1 going out, brandishing his first Wimbledon trophy Sunday after a 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 drubbing of 20-year-old David Nalbandian, an endearing but overwhelmed Argentine making his debut on Centre Court.

If there was little to savor in this sloppy affair, it at least provided a welcome change from the fusillade of aces that ring out most other years.

Pete Sampras sometimes served more aces in two games than the seven Hewitt and Nalbandian produced in three sets. On the other hand, they hit more groundstrokes in one rally than Sampras did in a whole match. To the typical weekend player, this felt a little more familiar.

Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi and now Hewitt are the only men to win Wimbledon from the baseline in the Open era. The only ones, really, since Bill Tilden back in 1930.

This final was the first between two baseliners since Borg beat Connors two straight years, 1977 and 1978.

The baseline game may be back on Centre Court. But for how long?

History suggests that Hewitt's title run this year is more an anomaly than a portent for the future. Consider the trend: Connors in 1982, Agassi in 1992, Hewitt in 2002. Once every 10 years. Not a baseliner in between.

The reason is simple. Grass, where the ball skids low and fast, favors the big serve-and-volleyer. Always will.

Winning from the backcourt takes a rare combination of sharp returns and steady groundstrokes. It takes intelligence and swift legs, canny anticipation and the endurance to chase balls all over the court.

Most of all it takes patience and guts, a willingness to stand 10 yards from the net when the opponent is rushing in, trying to win with the power of passing shots or the finesse of drops and lobs.

Agassi stands his ground in the center of the baseline and controls points with flat, crushing groundstrokes from side to side, winning as much by wearing players down as by whipping shots past them. He's not as fast afoot as the other baseliners, but he seems to know where all the balls are going and usually gets there in time. No one has had quicker reflexes on returns or has taken shots earlier on the hop.

Connors also hit flat groundstrokes, his shots clearing the net by the smallest of margins in a way that thrilled the crowds. He was the best returner of his era, but he wasn't content to stay back all the time. He liked to press the attack, taking short balls or groundstrokes on the fly while moving forward.

Hewitt is more like Borg, counterpunching rather than dictating the terms of a rally.

''He's Borg with less spin,'' Brian Gottfried, one of the top pros of the 1970s, said as he watched at Wimbledon.

Borg, who won Wimbledon five straight years from 1976 to 1980, was the baseliner supreme who hit with the heaviest topspin, his shots arcing five feet over the net, biting and kicking up. But Borg also learned to transform his game on grass, to play a more serve-and-volley style his last few years.

Hewitt could do the same. He's a lightweight at 150 pounds, but he can serve at more than 120 mph. He knows how to hit the approach and how to volley. At 21, with trophies from last year's U.S. Open and now Wimbledon, he's still a work in progress.

''When I first came on ... I was actually trying to mix it up,'' he said. ''I think I was playing the wrong style of game -- come to the net, chip-charge, that kind of stuff. It wasn't working. I went back. I said, 'The guys have got to play extremely well if they're going to beat me from the back of the court.' I returned well, used my passing shot, my quickness.''

Though Australians in the past grew up playing and loving grass, Hewitt was best on hardcourts. But the more he worked on his serve, the more he found he could win on grass. The past three years, he won the Wimbledon warmup at Queens.

''My serve has got me out of a lot of trouble the last few years in big tournaments,'' he said. ''When you start winning Queens a few years in a row ... then you start realizing you're a real contender for the big one a couple of weeks down the track.''

Still, it's tough to win Wimbledon year after year from the baseline. This year, with all the strange upsets, belonged to Hewitt. The future probably still belongs to the big boys.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.

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