There was a time, in the long, long ago, when the surface that people played tennis on was irrelevant, or at least rarely a subject for discussion and analysis. The likes of Perry, Laver, Emerson or Newcombe just turned up at Wimbledon, Kooyong, Forest Hills or Roland Garros and marched away with the prizes.
Then, as grass gave way to hard courts at the US and Australian Opens and other big tournaments, specialisation set in and the only man in recent years to crack the disparate challenges of clay and turf was Bjorn Borg. The Expressionless One used to win the French, rinse the clay stains out of his socks and march through the Wimbledon field as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Since those days, the lone one to come close was Andre Agassi with his glorious gallop of 1999-2000 in which he held three of the four Grand Slams and was runner-up at Wimbledon. But in Lleyton Hewitt, Australia has come up with another worthy competitor for all seasons and all surfaces, a 20-year-old who has been a hero on clay this year and who embarks tomorrow on the defence of the Stella Artois title he won so conclusively on the grass of Queen's Club 12 months back.
The sixth-seeded Hewitt did not drop a set in becoming the first teenager since Boris Becker in 1985 to land the London grass title, finishing off with a flourish by defeating Pete Sampras, twice a champion at Queen's and the acknowledged monarch of grass, in the final. Queen's was one of four titles annexed by by the feisty Hewitt in 2000, the others being on hard courts. Since then he has won Sydney, in January, also a hard court event.
But it was on the clay of Florianopolis, against Brazil in the Davis Cup quarter-finals in April, that Hewitt pulled off one of the finest wins of his young career, crushing the world No 1 and local hero, Gustavo Kuerten, in straight sets to lead Australia to unexpected victory. Despite the failure to overcome, or even satisfactorily diagnose, the virus which has affected his stamina, Lleyton has also reached four semi-finals this year and went out in the quarter-finals at the French Open, rather tamely by his standards, to Juan Carlos Ferero.
"I just had nothing in my legs," he explained. "It has been this ongoing health thing, where I haven't been able to do any off-court work for the last year now." Hewitt took a break after the Brazil occasion, coming back to reach the third round of the Italian Open and semi-finals of the German Open before falling to Ferrero in Paris. "So I've been playing pretty good tennis on clay lately, even though it's a surface I didn't grow up on. At the start both clay and grass were unknown factors for me because all I played on in Australia was hard courts. If someone had asked me what two Grand Slams I would do best in, I would have definitely said the Australian and US Opens because the surface comes natural to my game.
"Although I'm still learning how to play on grass I'm really looking forward to defending my title at Queen's. It's a great tournament and a great place. I love the grass courts there, and hopefully I'm going to enjoy getting some grass-court confidence in readiness for Wimbledon."
High-class opposition will certainly be available at an event which, though it doesn't pay top dollar on the men's tour (first prize is just £64,000), annually attracts a top-quality field in search of the same thing Hewitt is seeking the best possible preparation for Wimbledon. Just look at the tournament's record. Six times in the last 20 years the winner at Queen's has gone on to lift the Wimbledon crown: John McEnroe in 1981 and 1984, Jimmy Connors (1982), Boris Becker (1985) and Pete Sampras (1995 and 1999). In addition, Pat Cash and Stefan Edberg turned near-misses in the Stella into Wimbledon glory.
After years of steering clear of Queen's, Andre Agassi made his debut there a year ago but left with bad memories after injuring his hip in a skidding fall on damp grass. So the wild card being dangled by the tournament this time round has been rejected by Agassi, who may well still be in a snit following his spineless departure from Roland Garros in Wednesday's quarter- finals, overshadowed by the presence of Bill Clinton and out-hit by Sebastien Grosjean.
Another absentee will be Mark Philippoussis, the 1997 Stella champion, who has not fully recovered from a knee operation in March. However, Hewitt will be guaranteed meaningful competition by Sampras, Marat Safin, Jan-Michael Gambill and, of course, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski. Now is the time of year when Henman and Rusedski are expected to come into their own, though Queen's (apart from a semi-final in 1997) has not been the happiest of events for Rusedski. It was here in 1998 that he damaged an ankle in a fall and, by insisiting on playing half-fit at Wimbledon, lost in the first round and fell out terminally with Tony Pickard, one of the rare cases of a player being sacked by his coach.
Henman, at least, has been a Stella runner-up. He lost a close 1999 final to Sampras and then also fell to the American in the Wimbledon semi-finals. Sampras is a wild card this time as he chases an eighth Wimbledon win, and there are wild card places, too, for the most promising of the "outer fringe" Britons, Martin Lee and Lee Childs.Reuse content