Federer bewitches Hewitt

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It was well past midnight. A few hundred spectators who had persevered through another soggy day here at the Masters Cup were still there, cheering for Roger Federer, the world No 1, and Lleyton Hewitt, the world No 3, who were competing in a showcase match without a showcase.

"I kind of expected there would not be too many fans any more," Federer said, "even though it's one of the best match-ups you can get right now."

Sadly, because of the rain here this week, the eight most successful players of the season have been able to do nothing more than display some splendid tennis piecemeal. Houston has at least served as a reminder of the risk of playing a premier event outdoors at this time of the year.

Those that stayed for the concluding four games after a rain delay close to midnight on Wednesday, with Federer leading, 6-3, 4-2, were rewarded with some of the most stirring rallies of the week. Hewitt characteristically refused to admit he was fighting a lost cause.

Federer, who went on to take the second set, 6-4, to wrap up the match and secure his place in the semi-finals with one round-robin match to play, against Carlos Moya last night, was fascinated by the atmosphere generated by the hardy few.

"You can hear yourself much better after points, breathing and stuff," he said. "You can hear every fan who says something to you. So you have to be really focused. It's a very strange and awkward feeling."

Another awkward sensation after Federer's latest victory against one of his most gifted peers came when analysing Hewitt's reaction.

The man who has lost five sets 6-0 against Federer this year, two of them in the US Open final, smiled with resignation as yet another drive whizzed past him. Renowned for his resilience, Hewitt may have fallen under the spell of Federer's sublime talent and become awestruck.

"He's got a sort of belief there at the moment to pull the trigger on big points," Hewitt said. "That probably stands out more than anything else.

"After having break points, you start getting a feeling of where maybe he's going to go. But he's got such a great variety on all his shots, not just his serve. His forehand can go all the way. He's got a great topspin backhand, a great slice backhand as well, and he can come to the net. He volleys well. So you've always got that in the back of your mind, because he's got so many options out there."

Great players have an aura, which is fine unless, like Hewitt, their opponents show them too much respect and, like Tuesday's spectators, believe they have the best seat in the house.