(June 15, 2015) LONDON, England – There are certain kinds of matches that no one likes to play. The young kid swinging pressurelessly from her heels when you’re the established, perhaps even aging, champion (Chris Evert’s 1989 Houston final against 15-year-old Monica Seles made her decide to retire). Or: the retiring established star that everyone else is rooting for when you’re a mid-career journeyman.
The latter was Kevin Anderson‘s lot on Monday on the Centre Court at the Queen’s Club, where he faced Lleyton Hewitt playing in his second-to-last grass-court tournament before he retires after next year’s Australian Open, gets into the pumpkin waiting outside, and turns into a Davis Cup captain.
Not that Hewitt is preparing for this. “I’ve prepared my whole life,” he said after today’s match, meaning that stretching all the way back into childhood he was always planning, preparing, training, doing whatever his body needed so he could play his best. The idea of not having to prepare for anything sounds like his idea of freedom. He will miss, he said, the motivation of playing the majors and Davis Cup, but he relishes the idea of “Not always having to think about training and all those 1-percenters you have to do to keep playing on the tour.”
For the first set and a half, Hewitt did not play like it was almost midnight. He sliced, ran, lobbed, and used all the grass court skills that have won him 52 matches here – more than any other player in the Open Era. Among active players, only Roger Federer has won more grass-court matches, and that only by a hair: 132* for Federer (as of Monday), 128 for Hewitt. Titles are a different story: Federer 14, Hewitt 8. Still, one was at Wimbledon (2002, beating David Nalbandian in the final) and four at Queen’s, where this is his 16th outing: 2000-2002 and 2006, beating, respectively, Pete Sampras, Tim Henman, Henman, and James Blake in the finals. The surprise is to remember that Hewitt and Federer are the same age: Hewitt broke through five years earlier, half a tennis generation.
In the first-set tiebreak, Hewitt got a mini-break on the second point, and that carried him through to take the set. In the second set, he broke Anderson early on, and serving at 5-4 everything looked solid. Match point, Hewitt serving at 40-30, nets a forehand. Still, it’s only deuce, and while the winning horizon had receded just a little, surely…Double-fault. Advantage, Anderson. A long series of cross-court backhands followed, which Anderson interrupted with a down-the-line forehand that Hewitt scraped back, giving Anderson the chance to hit a winner. Which he did. Now 5-5, Anderson serving. Hewitt won the first point with a fine lob over Anderson’s head – not an easy task, since Anderson is one of those beanpole giant servers that seem to come out of mothballs the day after the French Open final. Maybe that lob was, in the long run, a bad idea. The rest of the game took only a few seconds: three aces, and a service winner. Serving to stay in the set, at deuce, Hewitt netted a backhand and then sent a forehand long. Set all.
Probably few would have expected in 1998, when 16-year-old Lleyton Hewitt broke through to win his first ATP title that he would still be playing in 2015. The most surprising change in those years, he said, is, “The bigger guys, how well they move around now on the court.” Citing players like Anderson (6’8″), John Isner (6’10”), and Ivo Karlovic (6’10”), he noted that they are not just big servers: “They are quality players from the back of the court, and they make a lot of balls out there.” When he started, he said, the big servers didn’t do much besides serve and volley – and if you could pin them to the back of the court, “They weren’t going to make a lot of balls.”
The third set was all Anderson, who quickly went up 3-0, and although Hewitt fashioned a break point serving at 1-3, the shot he netted looked tired, far from the Energizer Bunny of 2002. Anderson ran out the match 6-7, 7-5, 6-2.
Looking ahead, Hewitt, who loves this time of year, expressed the wry hope that his first match at Wimbledon will be easier than today’s or his second-round loss in Stuttgart to Nicolas Mahut: “It would be nice to play someone who’s not quite as good as those two on grass first up, at least. You’re in the hands of the gods, though, when you’re not seeded.” Which he won’t be: his current ranking is 117, and he needed a wild card to get in here.
Afterwards, the Queen’s Club presented Hewitt with a replica of its giant silver trophy and a bottle of Moet Chandon with his name inscribed upon it.
Anderson was pretty happy with his win – but for Hewitt at this point even a loss feels something like that. “Not many people in sport get to go out on their terms,” he said. “It looks like I will be able to do that.”