Hewitt's triumph ends long wait for title glory

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The Independent Online

It was not the wildest of celebrations. Lleyton Hewitt leant backwards, clenching his fists, before trotting over to shake hands with his entourage. In the public glare of the final of the Stella Artois Championships the Australian did not even offer more than a handshake to his wife, the soap actress Bec Cartwright, who was later joined by their six-month old daughter, Mia, at the side of the court.

Hewitt, who beat James Blake, 6-4, 6-4 in 66 minutes here yesterday to win his first title for 17 months, is a thoughtful individual who treasures his privacy. When it was pointed out that he had won in front of his daughter on Fathers' Day, he responded with a bat as straight as Donald Bradman's by pointing out that it was not Fathers' Day in Australia.

If his initial public show of happiness appeared muted, there is no doubt that this was a significant victory. It may be four years since Hewitt won a Grand Slam tournament, but the former world No 1 and current No 13 is still only 25 and showed that he remains one of the best players on grass.

When Wimbledon starts a week today the 2002 champion will be one of only a handful of players believing he has a real chance of relieving Roger Federer of his crown. This was Hewitt's fourth Stella Artois title, following three successive triumphs from 2000, and it puts him level with John McEnroe and Boris Becker as the most successful players here.

Since losing last year's Australian Open final to Marat Safin - the first of four finals in succession which he lost - Hewitt has been dogged by injuries. Even after he seemed on the way back with successive final appearances in America earlier this year (he lost to Andy Murray in San Jose and to Blake in Las Vegas), an ankle injury restricted his clay-court campaign.

Hewitt's ring rustiness showed when he was taken the distance in his first two matches here, by Fernando Vicente, a clay-court specialist ranked No 118, and Max Mirnyi, the No 46. However, the Australian was too good for a rejuvenated Tim Henman in the semi-finals and dominated Blake throughout to record a seventh win in eight meetings with the American.

Blake was broken in the first and fifth games and a double-fault was the only point he won against serve until, at 5-1 down, he produced three scorching backhand winners out of nowhere to break Hewitt to love. The Australian quickly recovered, however, and served out to take the first set. There was only one break in the second, in the seventh game, but the outcome was rarely in doubt.

Hewitt looked comfortable in every department. He serves with impressive power for a comparatively small man and volleys cleanly on his occasional forays to the net, but it is his skill as a counter-puncher and doggedness as a retriever that make him such a formidable opponent.

"I've got better as the week's gone on," he said afterwards. "Hopefully it's good preparation for a week's time. I felt that I played pretty flawless tennis for most of today. I was happy with the way I struck the ball. I served really well and put pressure on his serve as much as possible."

Blake, who has overcome injury and illness problems of his own to climb from No 210 in the world to No 7 in just 14 months, failed to rediscover the form which had accounted for Andy Roddick, the defending champion, in the semi-finals. He served erratically and made too many errors on his backhand, which had been much improved in recent times.

"I think to beat Lleyton you really have to control the points, and I wasn't able to do that because he was getting on the offensive before I was," said Blake. "My serve wasn't quite as good as it was yesterday and I wasn't able to attack him." Does Hewitt believe that he - or anyone else - has a chance of beating Federer at Wimbledon? "No one's been able to do it over the last three years and I don't think anyone's come that close either," the Australian said. "Obviously Federer is going to be the guy to beat, but Grand Slams are funny things. If you put yourself in a position for the second week a lot of strange things can happen."

* Roger Federer equalled Bjorn Borg's record of 41 consecutive victories on grass with a 6-0, 6-7, 6-2, defeat of the Czech Tomas Berdych in the final of the Halle Open yesterday.

* Vera Zvonareva, of Russia, clinched her first DFS Classic title at Edgbaston yesterday by beating the surprise finalist Jamea Jackson, 7-6, 7-6. Jackson had ended Maria Sharapova's bid for a third straight title at the Wimbledon warm-up event on Saturday.