Sheer will wins one more for Hewitt
PARIS -- The rap on Martin Verkerk is that the laissez-faire Dutchman doesn't care enough. Lleyton Hewitt, the scrappy Aussie, probably cares too much.
Contrasts in style and substance, they collided Saturday on Court Suzanne Lenglen at the French Open. Hewitt, down two sets to one and a break in the fourth, somehow willed his way to win 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1. In the last set, Hewitt looked like a Grand Slam champion; last year's runner-up, Verkerk, to the dismay of his orange-clad fans, looked like the club player from the Netherlands he was as recently as a year ago.
"I was just hanging in there," Hewitt said. "He served extremely well for two sets and I just had to wait for my opportunities. He's a tough guy to play in that situation -- that's how he got to the final last year. I was just hoping to put a little doubt in his mind."
In the round of 16, Hewitt, who was cheered on by his fiancée, Kim Clijsters, will play the winner of the match to be completed Sunday between Xavier Malisse and Albert Costa, who was leading 2 sets to 1 when darkness fell with the pair tied at 5-all in the fourth set.
Hewitt, now 23, won two Grand Slams at a precocious age, but has gone 0-for-6 since. His ranking, formerly No. 1, has trailed off to No. 12. With the emergence of Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and a fleet of young Spanish players on the horizon, Hewitt's determination, most days, is no longer enough to win; he will have to raise the level of his game to compete in the major tournaments.
Verkerk, the cartoon-goofy Dutchman, wandered into last year's French Open final after a previously undistinguished career. The way Verkerk contorted his 6-foot-5, 200-pound frame and talked to himself endeared him to the crowds. He was only the third man in the Open Era (1968) to reach the final in his debut. Since last year's French, Verkerk, who has a reputation as a voracious socializer off the court, never put together back-to-back wins the rest of the 2003 season and failed to advance past the second round in his three Grand Slam appearances.
Although Hewitt defeated Verkerk twice earlier this year, in Sydney and just a week ago at the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf, momentum seems to swing herky-jerky between the two men. Here in Paris, once again, neither man could sustain a rhythm long enough to control the match. Verkerk hit bombs all over the court, while Hewitt counter-punched, playing his defense game.
The first break in the fifth set went to Hewitt. Following the familiar pattern, Verkerk hit a big serve, and Hewitt scrambled to retrieve it. Verkerk followed with a good approach shot, but Hewitt hoisted a pretty lob that clipped the line for a 2-0 lead. With Hewitt, screaming "Come on!" after every successful shot, Verkerk disappeared. Hewitt won 12 of the last 15 games.
Hewitt, who won titles at Sydney and Rotterdam earlier this year, likes his position. With four of the top six seeds departed, this could be Hewitt's best chance for a victory at Roland Garros.
"Oh, I don't know about that, mate," Hewitt said. "There's a reason that Ferrero and Federer are out of the tournament. They played guys that were too good. I'm just trying to take it one match at a time.
"I feel as good as I've ever felt on clay, especially at this tournament. We're not even through half the matches in a Grand Slam. I played a lot more clay matches this year coming in, so I'm pretty happy with where my game is."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.