Monday, Jul 08, 2002
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By Nirmal Shekar
Australia's Lleyton Hewitt kisses the trophy he won after halting Argentina's David Nalbandian's dream run in the men's singles final match at Wimbledon, on Sunday. AP
It's just that the script went wrong. Or, to be more precise, the world's best tennis player tore it to shreds as he reminded us yet again in the men's singles final of the 116th Wimbledon championships that sporting fairytales don't happen every day.
Overwhelming favourite to become the first Australian champion here since Pat Cash in 1987, Lleyton Hewitt lived up to his billing with a 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 defeat of the Argentine debutant David Nalbandian in an hour and 56 minutes to reassert his supremacy in the men's game in the climactic act of a championship that's witnessed the fall of a glittering array of superstars and legends.
The shortest final in the last 18 years in terms of games won by the losing finalist since John McEnroe demolished Jimmy Connors 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in 1984 brought up Hewitt's second Grand Slam title. He won his first at the U.S.Open last year where he outplayed a jaded Pete Sampras before going on to finish the year as the youngest No.1 in the history of ATP rankings.
``It is an unbelievable feeling. Growing up as a kid in Australia, watching Pat Cash win it here, you dreamed of playing for this trophy some day,'' said Hewitt. "To come out here and play so well in the final, to hold up this trophy, which is a beauty...it is incredible.''
The victory also stretched the fiery Australian's winning streak on grass this summer to 14 matches. He won his third straight Queen's title and then pulled out of the grass court event in Rosmalen, Holland, before the quarterfinal because of illness.
In a season of major sporting upsets, following the heroics of teams such as Senegal, South Korea and Turkey in the World Cup, many might have hope here that Nalbandian would bring off a miracle. But, as Brazil did in the World Cup, Hewitt proved once again that in the world of sport, more often than not, the Goliaths are the dominant force.
This apart, in the first Wimbledon final in over a quarter of a century that was contested largely from the baseline at both ends perhaps the last one was between Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg in 1978 there were times when you wanted to cry out: Where are you Pete Sampras?
Where are you Pat Rafter? Where are you Andre Agassi?
Today, in what was the "youngest'' final in the Open Era Hewitt is 21, Nalbandian is 20 the Australian was not quite as awesome as he had been in the semifinal match against Tim Henman on Friday. And he did not need to be.
Same time last year, Nalbandian, now ranked 32, was trying to win a few dollars of survival money in a town called Ulm in Germany, playing a second-tier Challenger event. This fortnight, playing in his first ever Tour event on grass as a pro, the man from Cordoba 450 miles outside Buenos Aires has lived out a dream.
And, at a time when his country is going through the worst financial crisis in its history, made sure that irrespective of today's result, he would have won much more this fortnight than he did the whole of last year when his week-after-week slog in the lower reaches of the game gave him $1,96,893.And there were times during this final when the young man must have wished that he had been elsewhere. For, he was clearly outclassed by an opponent playing the best tennis of his life.
It was obvious that Nalbandian was far too tense at the start. It would have been a surprise only if he weren't. For, this is a man who came into this tournament hoping to win a round or two and, instead, found himself in the final of the greatest tennis championship in what is his maiden event on grass.
Of course, the demise of so many acknowledged champions so early in this event did help Nalbandian's historic progress to the final but there can be no doubt that he has played some of the most authoritative tennis that any Argentine has ever played here.
At age 20, Nalbandian has also shown a far greater maturity and tactical acumen that you'd expect of a debutant. He has adapted himself well against opponents with different styles of play and did sound confident yesterday when talking about his chances against the best player in the world.
But, then, the fact that he has never before stepped on the centre court here might have made a huge difference as much as the enormity of the occasion and what was at stake.
No court in the world is quite like the centre court at Wimbledon and the ones that have played there time and again know how to use the stage to their advantage. In fact, Pete Sampras would never have lost to George Bastl in the second round last week if the match had been played on the centre court instead of the No.2 court which the great man had not visited in many, many years.
In the event, it was no great surprise that the stage and the occasion got to Nalbandian at the start. He lost the first four games, making far too many unforced errors on a day when Hewitt himself was playing well within himself, and was showing a level of intensity that would have hardly matched what we saw in the semifinal match against Tim Henman.
While he did fight off a few breakpoints, the Argentine failed to hold serve until the fifth game when he hit his first pair of winners in the match, a double handed backhand up the line and a forehand pass to hold to 1-4. But this bit of recovery was nullified by a poor service game in the seventh as Nalbandian double faulted to lose serve and the set.
Hewitt himself fought off a breakpoint to hold to 1-0 in the second set when the first showers of the day arrived. And so indeed did the first streaker of the championship in six years. This time unlike in the 1996 final between Richard Krajicek and Malivai Washington it was a male who decided to keep the fans amused for a while before the security staff arrived. But the streaker did give them a good run for their money before being led away.And, on resumption, Nalbandian too decided to give his opponent a run for his money. Although he lost serve in the second game, the Argentine hit back by breaking the Aussie with some smart play at the net in the next game.
But, then, just as the match was turning competitive, at 3-3 in the second set, the showers arrived again and the players hurried back into the locker room.
Thirty five minutes had passed before the next point was played and it was Hewitt who may have had a minor lapse in concentration at 2-0 in the second set who came out firing. He broke Nalbandian in the eighth game, one that featured two blistering forehand winners from the top seed, before hitting and ace down the middle to hold and close out the set in the next game.
In the third set, Hewitt surprisingly let go of an early advantage as he was broken back in the fourth game. But he struck back immediately to seize the initiative again and run away to pick up the trophy that matters most in the sport.
Meanwhile, India's Mahesh Bhupathi and Elena Likhovtseva of Russia stormed into the mixed doubles final with a 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 defeat of Don Johnson and Kimberly Po of the United States.
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