Lleyton in Wimbledon mood

Champion of 2002 fancies his chances again - if he can survive first round.

Though he is by no means your arche-typal Aussie, Lleyton Hewitt possesses in abundance those qualities, such as heart, confidence and ability, which have produced so many sporting champions from that nation. Belief by the bucket-load, too.

Though he is by no means your arche-typal Aussie, Lleyton Hewitt possesses in abundance those qualities, such as heart, confidence and ability, which have produced so many sporting champions from that nation. Belief by the bucket-load, too.

Lleyton believes, for instance, that he is one of a select group capable of walking through the gates of the All England Club on Monday next week and emerging a fortnight later in possession of the Wimbledon gentlemen's singles trophy. Since he has accomplished that mission once already, why not, mate.

Hewitt won Wimbledon two summers ago, a time when he dwelt at No 1 in the world rankings and was already a Grand Slam champion of the US Open. Since then he has known a tough time or two, none more so than 12 months ago, when he stepped on to Centre Court to open the defence of his title and staggered away after being hammered to a shock defeat by the 6ft 10in Croat Ivo Karlovic. It was the first time in 36 years that the holder had gone out in the first round.

By the end of last year, partly because he cut back on his tournament commitments in successful pursuit of the Davis Cup for his country, Hewitt had slipped down to 17th in the world. Now, a place in the top 10 regained, the sights are set on joining that exclusive club of Australians such as Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Roy Emerson, and Lew Hoad as a multiple winner at Wimbledon. He has been finding his grass-court feet again over the past few days at Queen's Club, a location where he won the Stella Artois title three straight times between 2000-02, though he will not be doing so this year, having lost to Andy Roddick in the semi-finals yesterday.

With his skewed cap and bandy-legged stride, Hewitt has become a familiar and popular figure at the Stella, a tournament he finds congenial as well as helpful. "It's nice in preparation for Wimbledon to have grass-court time under match pressure, and you are always going to be more confident if you get matches under your belt,'' he said, at ease between rounds.

"But it's not essential. Flip [Mark Philippoussis] lost here first round last year, went away to work on his game and got to the Wimbledon final. If you can get through the first two difficult rounds of Wimbledon and build from there, then I don't think it makes a lot of difference.''

Hewitt is one of those whose game is adaptable and rounded enough to help smooth the raw and rapid Grand Slam transition from the French Open, on the sport's slowest and most demanding surface, to the quickest on Wimbledon's turf. "I grew up on hard courts in Australia,'' said the 23-year-old Hewitt, "So my whole movement was made for those courts. Changing to grass is, for me, a lot easier than clay. I am probably one of the few who enjoys playing on grass, who likes going out there. A lot of the guys are negative from the start, so that's a huge bonus for me.

"The Australian Open is my home Slam and I want to win that, but it meant an awful lot to me to win here in 2002. I probably surprised myself by winning Wimbledon so early, but I drew confidence from Andre Agassi. I know he has only won it once, but he has been a contender every year he has played Wimbledon, with a style similar to mine.''

So, then, is a repeat within his reach? Hewitt nodded. "My return of serve and my passing shots are good enough and I move well enough. If I clean up on my service games, eventually I am going to get a chance to break. Only a handful of guys actually believe that they can win Wimbledon and are capable of it - and I am one. There are quite a few who can cause upsets, but whether they can go on to win is another question.''

Hewitt's loss to Karlovic was one such upset, the biggest of Wimbledon 2003, and it was a hurtful setback. "It was pretty hard to take at the time,'' he admitted, "and it will probably always be in the back of my mind, I guess, especially when I go out there again to play my first-round match. But the good thing about tennis is that you don't have to wait long for another big tournament to look forward to and focus all your energy on.'' In Hewitt's case it was the US Open, where he reached the quarter-finals, before that withdrawal from circuit play to concentrate on restoring Australia's hold on the Davis Cup by defeating Switzerland in the semis and Spain in the final.

He regards Roger Federer, whom he beat then, as favourite to repeat his Wimbledon triumph, and also has much regard for Tim Henman's chances. "English tennis is waiting for that Grand Slam, and Tim is the best chance. He has been trying for quite a while now, and the way he handles the situation every year is a credit to him.''

It was, of course, Lleyton who defeated Henman in the 2002 semis, one of seven straight wins he has posted over Tim. He is not quite sure how that sequence has been assembled, but is in no doubt about that occasion. "I saw it as the final. I played my best match of the tournament, and I needed to.'' And, you feel, if Lleyton Hewitt needed to do so again, he would fancy his chances.

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