Hewitt back in top form


NEW YORK -- Lleyton Hewitt finished as the No. 1-ranked player in the world in 2001 and 2002 by running down more balls and winning more matches than anybody. And then in 2003, he gave himself to a larger cause.

In mid-September, he led the Australian Davis Cup team into the finals with stirring victories over Roger Federer and Michel Kratochvil. Then, for the nine weeks between the semifinals and the championship against Spain, Hewitt did not play in a single tournament.

Australia won the title in December, and Hewitt played a big role, defeating French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero. His individual ranking, however, plummeted to No. 16; Hewitt won only 37 matches, compared to Andy Roddick's 72 and Federer's 78.

"I just was thinking about the Davis Cup final more than anything," Hewitt explained Wednesday. "For me it was all about putting my eggs in one basket and preparing as well as possible for that Davis Cup final. Obviously, it paid off for that."

And just as obviously, the layoff has helped to place Hewitt among a small group of serious contenders here at the U.S. Open.

"Yeah," Hewitt mused, "it's probably worked as a positive. In hindsight, it probably helped me this year. I feel strong now, towards the last third of the year."

Coming in to the Open, no one is hotter on the men's side than Hewitt. He's won 11 straight matches and 15 of his last 16. On Wednesday, he torched Wayne Ferreira 6-1, 7-5, 6-4 in a first-round match. Ferreira, after playing in a record 56 straight Grand Slam events, promptly announced his retirement after Davis Cup matches later this month.

This renaissance has not eluded the attention of Federer.

"I've been checking him out," Federer admitted after his first-round victory. "I know how tough he is, especially on American hardcourts. I definitely think he's one of the top four contenders for the title, next to me, Agassi and Roddick. I feel like once he gets going, he's very hard to stop."

A kindly draw leaves the No. 4-seeded Hewitt with some room to build momentum. The highest seed standing between Hewitt and the quarterfinals is No. 12 Sebastien Grosjean. No. 8 David Nalbandian, a semifinalist here a year ago, would oppose him in the quarters and Andy Roddick, the No. 2 seed, would await in the semifinals.

Hewitt, 23, has always won with speed and guile. Only Guillermo Coria can challenge his alley-to-alley speed, and few players can summon his intensity in the big moment. If there was a weakness in his run at the top, it was Hewitt's serve. After Wednesday's match, Ferreira said his offerings looked pretty good.

"He went through a little bit of a bad patch there for awhile," Ferreira said. "He was serving a lot of doubles, probably lost a bit of confidence. But he seems like today he's got it all back. He served very, very well, which is something he's been struggling with for awhile. He's definitely getting in a lot more first serves, a little bit more penetrating."

That serve and a renewed enthusiasm has carried him to the No. 4 position in the ATP season-long race. Hewitt has lost three matches to Federer, most notably in the quarterfinals at the French Open and Wimbledon, but after losing to Andre Agassi in the final at Cincinnati, Hewitt won his last two tournaments, Washington and Long Island.

Hewitt has been so good this summer there are concerns that he's been too good. More matches, more wins creates a double-edged sword: confidence vs. fatigue.

"Well, when you're winning them it sort of comes back to the confidence sense," Hewitt said. "You walk out there knowing that you've won many matches going out there, beating a lot of worthy opponents."

"I hope for him he didn't play too much leading up to this," Federer said of Hewitt. "I think he hasn't been playing too much over the last, say, one and one-half years. So he's got a lot of energy left in his tank.

"He could just take the confidence with him from the last three tournaments he won and carry it through the whole U.S. Open. Let's keep an eye on him."

Hewitt didn't sound concerned.

"As long as you don't overdo it," he said. "It's been good for me. I don't feel physically down at the moment. I think when I won Wimbledon a couple of years ago I had a pretty good streak going through there.

"I've been able to put it together day in and day out the last few weeks, the last couple of months. That probably goes back to a couple of years ago when I was able to play that kind of tennis. There's definitely been matches over the last few weeks that I feel like I've played as well as I've probably ever played."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.