Hewitt's brilliance edges out Henman

Australia's buccaneering baseliner successfully defends Stella Artois title but British No 1 can be satisfied with his form
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It may be cold comfort for Tim Henman and his supporters, but much of the tennis played in his Stella Artois Championship final against Lleyton Hewitt not only brightened a bleak afternoon but was superior to many Sunday shows contested here under blue skies.

The ideal blend of the match helped ­ Henman's serve and volley against Hewitt's brilliance from the back of the court ­ but the 20-year-old Australian's burgeoning confidence on grass courts was the clincher as he won, 7-6, 7-6, to become the first player to make a successful defence of the title since Ivan Lendl in 1990.

Moreover, the courts yesterday were "pretty greasy", to quote Pete Sampras, the seven-times Wimbledon champion, who lost to Hewitt, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, in the semi-finals, played yesterday morning after Saturday's wash-out.

Henman also played three sets in the morning, overcoming South Africa's Wayne Ferreira, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.

The dark clouds became even blacker and the air more chilling during the final as Henman, the fourth seed, and Hewitt, the third seed, played some breathtaking rallies, the British No 1's volleys and drop shots matching the Australian No 1's passes and fleet-footed recovery shots.

Hewitt's serve, a greater weapon this season, enabled him to whisk away Henman's break point at 4-3 ­ the only opportunity on either side in the opening set ­ and the Australian's returning gave him the edge in both tie-breaks, which he won 7-3, and several of the games leading up to them.

Rain interrupted play for 14 minutes before Hewitt was able to hold serve to 15 at 5-6 in the opening set. He then took a 3-0 lead in the tie-break, cracking Henman's serve on the first point. Henman then double-faulted to 6-2, Hewitt converting the second set point, luring his opponent into netting a backhand after 65 minutes.

Henman had to save four break points at 2-3 in the second set and two more at 3-4. But he was the first to break serve, for 5-4, meeting Hewitt's drive with a forehand volley.

Serving to level the match, Henman delivered four first serves ­ and Hewitt replied with four winners for 0-40 before Henman scored a point. At 15-40, Henman's second serve was treated to the disdain of a Hewitt forehand cross-court pass.

Hewitt saved three break points at 5-5 and capitalised in the second tie-break after Henman put a high backhand volley wide for 2-4 and then gave him a short ball to drill for 2-5. Hewitt's netted forehand provided Henman with his last point of the tournament. "The match could have gone either way," Hewitt said, delighted to have beaten Sampras and Henman back-to-back on the same day. "I'm coming in a bit more now, and I'm also dictating play a bit more from the back of the court and not waiting for opponents to make errors."

"It certainly was pretty close," Henman said. "I played a very good match, and he was just a little bit better than I was. The bigger the challenge you give him, the better he is. But I feel confident I can play well at Wimbledon."

Hewitt, seeded No 7 at Wimbledon last year after defeating Sampras in the Stella final, lost in the first round to the American Jan-Michael Gambill in straight sets. "I'm going to give it everything I've got," he promised.

Sampras, like Henman, was not dismayed with his own form and gave Hewitt credit for an impressive performance. "I was playing well until the middle of he second set, when I hit a couple of loose shots and he hit a couple of good returns, and he was on a roll from there," Sampras said. "Even his serve picked up up, and he was moving pretty well.

"He played very well against me in the final last year, and after he beat me a thought he'd go farther at Wimbledon than he did. He's going to get better and better. He loves a target. He loves the fact that I'm coming in.

"He has the speed to get to my volleys. He's got the wheels, a big part of grass-court tennis. Look at Borg, look at McEnroe. All the great champions have moved well on grass." Sampras was given a code violation yesterday after hitting a ball out of the court in frustration. Asked for his thoughts about one or two dubious line calls, he said: "There were a few tight ones. When you get an overrule on a first serve, that's surprising. The ball's going so fast. But that didn't change the match. It wasn't a big deal." As for his Wimbledon preparation, he said: "I don't look at it as a setback. I've had a productive week. I've played a couple of baseliners and a lefty. I'll take a couple of days off and then get over to Wimbledon. The way I've played this week was at the same level as last year and the year before, but I feel a lot more relaxed coming in this year than I did last year. As I'm getting pretty old on grass, I have the experience. That's good."

The main dangers? "Pat Rafter, Andre [Agassi], the two Englishmen, Lleyton [Hewitt], [Gustavo] Kuerten ­ that's a joke ­ Andy Roddick, Todd Martin, and some dark horses." On a personal note, he added: "Since I got married I feel I've more stability in my life, more of a balance. I still have the focus on the court, and off court I'm very happy. I was living in Florida for my tennis and for my tennis only ­ and for my taxes. But now I've moved to Los Angeles I'm back to my roots and I'm able to see more of my family."