| Lleyton Hewitt isn’t as sharp as last year
The Grand old lady of S.W. 19, as Wimbledon has been christened by the press, is all dressed up and ready for the 2003 championship which gets underway Monday. Lleyton Hewitt, the high-decibel reigning champion whose screams ‘come on’ echoed around the Centre Court last year is the top seed. The 5-foot-11, 22-year-old fiercely competitive Australian has been struggling to reach top form.
At the French Open and at Queen’s Club he lost early and did not shape up like a prospective Wimbledon winner. The draw has been kind to him and as he meets a qualifier in the opening round, and in the second, gets the winner of another qualifier and a lucky loser picked from the final round of qualifying. In older days the qualifiers were never a threat. But with the great depth in modern tennis, some of the qualifiers can pose all sorts of problems. In 1977, John McEnroe qualified and reached the semi-finals. However, I doubt if there is another McEnroe lurking in the lower rungs with the same talent and explosive vocabulary!
One wonders if Hewitt can get into top gear before he meets No. 5 Andy Roddick or the dangerous floater Greg Rusedski in the quarters. Roddick and Rusedski share the world record for the fastest serve at 149 mph. At Queen’s Club, Roddick unleashed one at 154 mph but it was a fault. A fully fit Rusedski would have been a very dangerous customer. He has the experience of playing a Grand Slam final — at the US Open in 1999 when he lost to Pat Rafter. But he has been out every now and then with injuries and it is too much for him, or for that matter anybody, to attain the consistency, sharpness and physical fitness needed to win a Grand Slam in just two weeks.
Roddick, the 6-foot-2, 21-year-old American hope, has the game to be a worthy Wimbledon champion. The weapons to support his ballistic serve are there, but can he keep his impetuous temperament under control' His new coach Brad Gilbert, who brought Andre Agassi up from a ranking of 141 in 1997 to the pinnacle of glory, seems to be the ideal man to help Roddick find the route to the top. Roddick’s weakness apart from his immaturity is his reluctance to go to the net even after his explosive serve. The unpredictable bounce on grass as compared to hardcourts, tilts the balance in favour of the volleyer.
Overall, Hewitt’s quarter is brimming over with talent. Apart from Roddick and Rusedski, there is Taylor Dent of the US, who has a lethal serve, Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand, Mario Ancic of Croatia and Tommy Robredo of Spain.
The second quarter of the top half of the draw has fourth seed Roger Federer of Switzerland and Scheng Schalken of Holland, who is seeded eighth. Federer is a gifted 22-year-old with a classical technique of yesteryear. The shots flow from his racket smoothly and effortlessly, without the loud grunting and whirling topspin which have become a hallmark of the modern game. He is a joy to watch, but with his nonchalant attitude, he may find it difficult to maintain the high level of consistency for a full fortnight.
For Schalken, now 27, 2002 was his best year. A semi-finalist at the US Open, he lost narrowly (5-7) in the fifth set to Hewitt in a pulsating quarter final at Wimbledon. One wonders if he can take another step forward this time.
Agassi is the popular and charismatic contender, who has just completed an amazing 1000 matches on the professional circuit. With a rich haul of seven Grand Slam titles and $26 million in prize money, Agassi is seeded second. His credentials should make him an odds-on favourite for the title. But not even giants like him can stem the tide of time. His reflexes and movement will be put to a serious test on the fast grass at Wimbledon. Furthermore, Agassi is at his best on a high bouncing surface which, at Wimbledon, will require plenty of sunshine. The British summer is notorious and the sunshine quota may have been exhausted in the last three weeks of tropical sun.
Yet another minus is that Agassi is a counter puncher and at his best when attacked. But apart from the ageing few, the serve and volley player has disappeared and the game is now totally dominated by baseliners. There will be no staccato exchanges and Agassi will have to work hard to win every point. To keep going for two weeks in top form against strong opponents in best of five set matches is a tall order for a 33-year-old.
In Agassi’s section of the draw are Younes El Aynaoui, the 6-foot-4, late blossoming 32-year-old from Morocco, Argentine Guillermo Coria who defeated Agassi at the French Open, Mark Philippoussis and the unpredictable Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Fortunately for Agassi, Marat Safin the giant Russian has withdrawn with an injury.
In the top section of the bottom half of the draw is the talented third seed Juan Carlos Ferrero. The 23-year-old Spaniard was a very impressive winner at French Open. An aggressive baseliner, if Ferrero adjusts to the fast and low bounce of grasscourts, he will indeed be a major threat. Unfortunately, after Manuel Santana, who won Wimbledon in 1966, none of the leading Spanish players have made any serious effort to win here. One wonders if Ferrero can get over this mental block. If David Nalbandian could made the Wimbledon final last year, why not Ferrero who is a far better all court player win it'
Tim Henman and Martin Verkerk, the surprise French Open finalist, are in Ferrero’s quarter of the draw. Henman, a four-time semi-finalist, would have been my choice for Wimbledon 2003. Whatever his shortcomings, his performance on the Wimbledon grass speaks for him. His fluctuating form at Queen’s and the attention he needed on court for his shoulder show that he may not be at his best this time.
Verkerk, the 6-foot-3 giant killer in Paris can be dangerous again with his pulverising serve and booming groundstrokes. He could meet Henman in the third round and will thrive on the Briton’s straightforward power game provided he handles the grass.
As one could see from the results of the French Open, the average standard of the ladies has improved considerably. No longer can the seeds take victory for granted. Last year, Serena and Venus Williams seemed to be a class apart and one thought that they would dominate the game for years. But Justine Henin-Hardenne, Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo (who has pulled out of Wimbledon with injury) are now seriously challenging the Williams sisters’ superiority.
The withdrawal of Anna Kournikova, the pin-up girl of women’s tennis, has left a vacuum in glamour stakes. Her place has been taken by the 16-year-old Maria Sharapova, whose performance has fetched her a wild card. With photospreads in Vanity Fair and other magazines, she could become the new glamour girl of tennis.
To sum up, I would say in the absence of an outstanding grasscourt player Wimbledon 2003 is wide open. I fancy Roddick’s chances because of his big serve and powerful groundstrokes. The Queen’s Club title was great boost to his confidence. In the ladies’ half, Serena, stung by the setback in Paris, will come back with vengeance to defend her title.