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Thursday, June 25, 2009
Hewitt chops Del Potro down to size

WIMBLEDON, England -- Juan Martin Del Potro, the towering, heavyweight ball striker from Argentina, was making so much progress.

Here he was, in 2009, knocking off Rafael Nadal at the glitzy Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, smiting versatile Scot Andy Murray at the Madrid Masters and striking fear into Roger Federer at the French Open. This after Federer dismantled a dispirited Del Potro at the Australian Open.

The youngest player in the top 10, at 20 years and roughly nine months, Del Potro had stepped it up a notch from the summer of 2008, when he became the first man to win his first four titles in succession -- two on hard courts and two on clay. He shares a few traits with Federer, one of them being that he wept after his defeat to Murray at the U.S. Open.

Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain and ESPN analyst who might run into Del Potro in the Davis Cup semifinals, is a fan.

"I think his intensity has grown a lot in the last year," McEnroe said. "When it comes to hitting the ball and serving, his serve has improved a ton the last 18 months. I think he's got the ability to" win Wimbledon down the road.

Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, not bad at spotting talent, wrote in Britain's Independent ahead of the fifth seed's match against Lleyton Hewitt on Thursday that the 6-foot-6 right-hander is a "physical freak in the same way that the Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt is freaky. Del Potro, too, is comfortable in his big shell, and moves extremely well. If I were in the draw, I certainly wouldn't want to run into the guy this fortnight."

Hewitt had no choice.

Although Del Potro suffered an illness following the French Open and is inexperienced on grass -- on which the ball stays low, and movement takes getting used to -- few gave the battling Hewitt a serious shot against the big Argentine. Sure, Hewitt won Wimbledon before Federer became Federer, but the Aussie, 28, underwent hip surgery in August and doesn't move the way he used to.

Now in his 13th year on the circuit, the 56th-ranked Hewitt hadn't downed a top-10 player at a Grand Slam since Andy Roddick in the semifinals of the 2005 Australian Open -- a 12-match skid.

By the time Hewitt and Del Potro were a set and a half into their encounter on Centre Court, one had 13 aces and had won an overwhelming majority of points behind his first serve.

Guess what? It wasn't Del Potro.

Hewitt's uncharacteristically powerful serving clicked, and he got a little help from Del Potro to pull off a 6-3, 7-5, 7-5 win, the first major upset of the fortnight. The latter went 1-for-8 on break points.

"It was a big win," Hewitt said. "I wanted to beat a top-five guy. These are the places you want to do it, too. He's a future Grand Slam champion on possibly any surface."

When Hewitt succumbed to Chilean shot-maker Fernando Gonzalez in the first round of the Australian Open, the third event of his comeback, he brushed aside suggestions that retirement loomed. Still, winning a huge tilt at the world's most revered tennis tournament must have been the furthest thing from his mind.

The fifth game was pivotal. Hewitt buckled but didn't go down, saving four break points. Del Potro swiftly dropped serve, then missed two more break chances to trail 5-2. Slipping while returning a Hewitt serve in the first, Del Potro didn't appear at ease.

He wasn't himself on the baseline, spraying backhands -- his more reliable wing -- and miscuing on second-serve returns. In the 12th game of the second with Hewitt serving, Del Potro, who idolized Hewitt growing up, blew a 30-0 lead.

Hewitt served at a leaky 42 percent in the third, chipping in one ace.

"He never missed a return when he has a break [point], and I did many times," said Del Potro, who surprisingly gave himself a performance rating of eight out of 10. "So I think that was the difference between me and him."

Hewitt cracked when serving for the match at 5-4 in the third, though he broke right back.

Backed passionately by Aussies in the crowd -- Australia faces England in the gigantic Ashes cricket series in July -- Hewitt crumbled to his knees when it was over.

"I wanted to lay it out on the line, playing one of the best guys in the world, and see how you go," Hewitt said. "I felt like I was able to do that. I competed as well as I've ever competed."

Del Potro added postmatch that he enjoys sleeping, sometimes for 13 hours at a time.

He'll be dreaming of the hard courts now.