There are not many grass-court records that do not belong to Roger Federer, but Lleyton Hewitt is defending one of them with his usual tenacity.
The Australian has won more grass-court matches than any other current player and reached a century of victories earlier this week. Victory No 101 followed here yesterday as Hewitt beat France's Gaël Monfils 6-3, 7-6, 6-4 to earn a fourth-round encounter with Novak Djokovic.
Hewitt has not won a Grand Slam title since he added the 2002 Wimbledon crown to his US Open victory the previous year. He has not reached a Grand Slam semi-final since 2005.
When Hewitt had surgery on his right hip after this year's Australian Open some might have wondered whether he would ever challenge again at the highest level, but the 29-year-old's performance in the pre-Wimbledon grass-court event at Halle strengthened his conviction that he still has it in him to compete with the best. His victory over Roger Federer in the Halle final gave the world No 26 his first title for more than a year and inflicted only the second grass-court defeat on the Swiss since 2002.
Hewitt had lost his last two matches to Monfils, who also had the benefit of a coach, Roger Rasheed, who used to work with his opponent. The 23-year-old Frenchman, the world No 20, is a wonderful athlete, but in Hewitt he was facing one of the game's grass-court masters.
Even when he got into trouble, Hewitt retained his self-belief. Serving in the second set at 5-6 and 30-30, having just dumped a lame forehand into the net, he charged forward and hit an exquisite forehand volley winner after Monfils had pounded a big backhand down the line. Monfils' missed forehand then took the set into a tie-break, in which both men made a succession of errors. When the younger man served at 9-10, another superb low volley gave Hewitt the set, which he celebrated with a vigorous display of fist-pumping.
Monfils fought back from an early break in the third set, but Hewitt broke again at 4-5 to take the match. At 0-15 he won a superb point with a half-volley down the line, at 0-30 a big backhand cross-court winner set up match point and at 0-40 Monfils double-faulted to send Hewitt into the fourth round here for the seventh year in succession.
"I feel good at the moment," the Australian said afterwards. "It was always going to be a tough match. He's flashy, like most French guys. He's got a lot of firepower out there. He moves well. Obviously, grass takes away a little bit of his movement, but in terms of his serve he hits all the spots extremely well. That's what makes it tough on a grass court. I felt like I played well out there today. I played smart tennis."
Asked about his fist-pumping after winning the second set tie-break, Hewitt said: "That's who I am. You can't buy that. That's my personality coming out on the court. I've always played with my heart on my sleeve. It doesn't matter what the situation is. If I'm up for the fight, then it's going to show at the right times."
Djokovic, who crushed the Spanish clay-courter Albert Montañes 6-1, 6-4, 6-4, has beaten Hewitt in their last three meetings, two of which have been on grass – here three years ago and at Queen's Club 12 months later. The world No 3 would love to avenge Australia's victory three days ago over Serbia at the World Cup.
"When my football team loses, I'm a very bad loser," Djokovic said. "I had a sleepless night after we lost."
Andy Roddick dropped a set for the second round in succession before beating Philipp Kohlschreiber 7-5, 6-7, 6-3, 6-3, while Federer, having dropped two sets in his first match and one in his second, continued his improvement by beating Arnaud Clément 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. The Frenchman had beaten him in both their previous Grand Slam meetings, in the Australian Open in 2000 and 2001, but never looked capable of upsetting the top seed here. It was Federer's 95th victory on grass.
The defending champion now plays Austria's Jürgen Melzer, who beat Feliciano Lopez 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. Federer and Melzer, who reached the French Open semi-finals earlier this month in his best Grand Slam performance, have been friends since they were junior doubles partners at the Orange Bowl in Miami, but this is the first time they have met on the professional tour.
Asked about meeting the Queen at the All England Club on Thursday, Federer said he had sat next to her at lunch. "She made everybody feel very special at the table," he said. "She knew about my tough first round."
Asked exactly what she had said about his first match, Federer joked: "She said I should hit more backhands down the line."