Former champ heating up at right time

Lleyton Hewitt is playing his best tennis of the year at the right time. Greg Garber writes Hewitt winning the matches he's supposed to win.

Updated: July 1, 2006, 5:16 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- It was only a second-round match, but when it was over, Lleyton Hewitt's reaction suggested he might have been feeling a little pressure.

His standard "Come on!" was a snarling, amped-up "Come ooonnnnnnnnn!" -- as though he were falling off a cliff -- then he rendered a furious triple fist pump before bounding to the net to congratulate Hyung-Taik Lee.

Say this about Hewitt: He wins the matches he's supposed to win -- a commodity champions invariably possess.

Lleyton Hewitt
AP Photo/Anja NiedringhausLleyton Hewitt has reached at least the quarterfinals at Wimbledon each of the last two years.

On Thursday, the No. 6-seeded Australian finished a suspended match from the day before, prevailing 6-7 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-4 and advancing to a third-round match against Olivier Rochus.

"That's all it was -- survival out there," Hewitt said. "Coming out and playing one set to stay in Wimbledon, you know, I don't think it was easy for either of us.

"I made it tough for myself, that's for sure."

In American corporate culture, talented, upwardly mobile women sometimes crash into the glass ceiling. They rise to a certain point in the administrative hierarchy, but an unseen force -- the old-boy network -- prevents them from reaching the top.

Hewitt's not-so-invisible glass ceiling is named Roger Federer.

Before the astounding rise of the Swiss star, Hewitt was the game's No. 1-ranked player in 2001 and 2002. He won two Grand Slam singles titles in those years and seemed poised to win more.

Hewitt won seven of his first career nine matches against Federer, the last of those coming in the 2003 Davis Cup semifinals -- Federer began by winning two sets and lost despite holding a match point. Since then? Hewitt has lost to Federer nine straight times. Oh-and-nine. Federer has won 23 of 26 sets in that span.

Five of those losses came in Grand Slams in 2004 and 2005. Think about that from Hewitt's perspective: You scrap and scuffle your way through the tournaments that mean the most to you and -- wham! -- Federer is in and you're out. It can be argued that Hewitt might have one or two more Grand Slam titles if Federer were out of the picture.

At Wimbledon, Hewitt is among a handful of viable favorites. Federer is the leading contender, followed in most minds by Andy Roddick, Hewitt, Nadal and Mario Ancic. Because Hewitt is in the bottom half of the draw (with Roddick and Nadal), he wouldn't meet Federer until the final.

Small consolation.

"Lleyton Hewitt can definitely win this tournament," said Brad Gilbert, the former coach of Roddick and Andre Agassi, "but only if he doesn't face Roger Federer. With most matchups, you can conceive of a way one player can beat the other. How's Hewitt going to do that?

"He can't serve and volley. He can't drop 30 aces on you. The best thing he's got going for him is his attitude. I imagine he thinks he can beat him."

But does he really? Two days before the tournament began, Hewitt was asked what he needed to do to repeat his Wimbledon triumph of 2002.

"Obviously, the last couple of years, yeah, I have come close in the quarters and semis," he said. "It was just one player was too good. It's a matter of trying to put yourself in that position again and giving yourself another crack at it.

"You have to keep putting yourself in that position to find out. Any person that's going to beat him in the next two weeks is going to have to play an extremely good match and probably some of their best tennis."

Federer vs Hewitt, Grand Slams since 2004
Winner Score
'05 U.S. Open Federer 6-3, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3
'05 Wimbledon Federer 6-3, 6-4, 7-6
'04 U.S. Open Federer 6-0, 7-6, 6-0
'04 Wimbledon Federer 6-1, 6-7, 6-0, 6-4
'04 Australian Federer 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, 6-4

Hewitt never named his nemesis.

Federer's dominance cannot be understated. Before 2004, Hewitt had lost only three sets at love. Since then, Federer alone has bageled him five times.

It's an interesting time for Hewitt. He's only 25, and he had his time at the top -- his ranking has fallen to No. 9, but he seems to be enjoying life. After a long relationship with Belgian player Kim Clijsters, he married Australian actress Bec Cartwright last summer. Four months later, they had a daughter, Mia.

He has struggled with minor injuries this year; a sprained left ankle prevented him from playing in Australia's Davis Cup match in February, a strained left calf cost him six weeks of the clay-court season. Then, in Austria, he sprained his right ankle in his first clay match.

After losing to Nadal in the fourth round of the French Open, Hewitt played his best tournament of the year. He beat, among others, Max Mirnyi, Nadal, Tim Henman and James Blake for the Queen's Club title, his first victory in 17 months. The last time he won Queen's was 2002, the year he dropped only six games in the Wimbledon final to David Nalbandian.

Hewitt is too young to be an elder statesman, but he is one of only three former men's champions in field, joined by Agassi and, of course, Federer. Earlier in the week, Federer listed Hewitt among the few serious challengers to his crown. Is that a compliment?

"I guess you could take it as a small compliment," Hewitt said. "It's a long way to go to [the second] Sunday. Right at the moment, I don't worry about Roger. If it comes to that, it won't be an easy matchup, that's for sure.

"But I've got a lot of hurdles before I get to him."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.