Hewitt gears up for battle of kings

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The Independent Online

In many eyes their meeting would be the perfect final, but this afternoon the Swiss player, champion for the past two years, and the Australian, winner in 2002, cross swords in the semi-finals. It is the first time since 1989 that the world's top two ranked players have met at this stage of the tournament.

At any of the other Grand Slam events, where the seedings replicate the world rankings, Federer and Hewitt would be scheduled to meet in the final, but Wimbledon takes into account previous form on grass. Andy Roddick's performances here (semi-finalist and runner-up in the last two tournaments) and his three successive titles at Queen's earned the world No 4 the second seed's slot ahead of Hewitt, who since his triumph here three years ago has been knocked out in the first round and the quarter-finals.

However, even as the world No 2 Hewitt would create the shock of the championships so far if he were to beat Federer. Having won eight of his first 10 matches against the champion, Hewitt has lost the last seven in a row. Federer, who has won his last 12 sets against Hewitt, is unbeaten in his last 34 matches on grass, only seven fewer than Bjorn Borg's record.

"He's obviously the best player in the world for a reason," Hewitt said. "He's really taken his game to another level in the last couple of years. I've lost to him seven times in a row, but they've all been in that period when he's really dominated everyone. He's got to be very confident against anyone, especially here on Centre Court, which he's pretty much made his own in the last two years."

Federer, who played his best match of the tournament so far when he beat Fernando Gonzalez in straight sets in the quarter-finals, has made no special plans for today's match and has not been studying videos of the Australian. "What's most important is how I play," he said. "We've played on so many occasions now that I think we know each other's game well. We don't need to have more spies around because we're not going to change our games very much."

Hewitt concedes that Federer has looked "nearly unbeatable" at times. "He can mix it up so well. He's got a great slice, great forehand, a great serve, and he moves extremely well, which is a key on this surface. But he's got a lot of variety to his game as well. He can serve-volley, he can stay back. I think that's why he's had such a good record on grass."

However, it is not in the feisty Australian's make-up to think negatively. He has a cunning plan – "There are little areas where I think I might have a slight advantage," he said, "but I won't be telling you" – which his recent form would suggest need not be of the Baldrick variety.

In particular, Hewitt has grown in confidence following victories here over Christophe Rochus, Jan Hernych, Justin Gimelstob, Taylor Dent and, particularly, Feliciano Lopez in the quarter-finals. Lopez had beaten Marat Safin and Mario Ancic in the previous rounds, but was trounced in three sets as Hewitt raised his game. His serve is in particularly good shape, with only two players topping his tally of 74 aces (14 more than Federer).

Hewitt should also be the fresher of the two men after a lengthy absence with injury. Having begun the year by finishing runner-up to Safin in the Australian Open, he underwent an operation to remove a cyst from his right foot after losing to Federer in the final at Indian Wells in March.

The Australian then broke two ribs in an accident at home in Sydney, delaying his return until the Stella Artois Championships last month at Queen's, where he was knocked out in the quarter-finals by Ivo Karlovic, the big-serving Croatian who had shocked the then Wimbledon champion in the first round here two years ago.

In their only previous meeting here, in last year's quarter-finals, Federer beat Hewitt in four sets. Hewitt, however, sees some reason for encouragement when he looks back on that match.

"I had a lot of small chances and wasn't quite able to take them," he said. "Late in the fourth set I was up a break to take it into the fifth set and I just didn't quite play the big points as well as he did on the day. But that's the reason he's won here for the last two years."

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