There was a player on Centre Court yesterday who had never before strayed beyond the third round of Wimbledon. And then there was his opponent, Younes El Aynaoui, who still does not know what it feels like to reach the second week of Wimbledon. Lleyton Hewitt gained that privilege with a 7-5 5-7 6-4 7-6 victory over the Moroccan on Centre Court in a match of fitful entertainment which lasted two hours and 51 minutes.
It is worth putting some sensible perspective on the Australian's Wimbledon-winning credentials. The rush to ring out the old and usher in the new is understandable, but not at the expense of reality. Hewitt, despite his remarkable sequence of 15 successive victories on grass this year – including both singles in a Davis Cup tie against Ecuador – is still a grass-court novice, and for much of his third-round match yesterday his lack of tactical nous was exposed by an opponent who gave him no pace and no target. The contrast with his five sets of blood and thunder against Taylor Dent in the second round could not have been more marked. For long periods, his game was as back to front as his trademark baseball cap.
To be fair to Hewitt, he has not made any extravagant claims for himself. Rather the opposite. "I give myself an outside chance," he said earlier in the week. He also knows that his reluctance to move into the net will become a more glaring fault in the second week of the tournament, particularly if he moves through to a scheduled and much anticipated meeting with Andre Agassi in the quarter-final.
Midway through the third set, as Hewitt made a rare foray to the net, drawn in by the Moroccan's acute angles, and put away the volley, an Australian voice called out: "That's the way, Lleyton, get to the net". In the supporters' gallery, Darren Cahill, Hewitt's coach, must have been applauding silently. It was certainly noticeable that Hewitt played far more aggressively after a brief break for rain in the fourth set. Cahill, a former Davis Cup player and a more traditional Australian serve-and-volleyer, presumably read the riot act.
"Whatever happens, I'm going to have to step up a gear in the second week, that's for sure," Hewitt said. "It was a tough match, much tougher than I thought it would be. I felt like the better player, that it was only a matter of time before I got the opportunities."
At the risk of rushing ahead of the game, an engagement with Agassi will be an intriguing encounter between master and pupil. Agassi is 30, Hewitt 10 years younger, but the American will look down the court and see a carbon copy of himself all those years ago. Yet there is a touch of Michael Chang and more than a pinch of Jimmy Connors in Hewitt's make-up. He is a fighter, more so than Agassi at a similar age, blessed with similarly quick feet, equal anticipation, but less flamboyance and less variety of shot and speed of hand.
On his way to the title in 1992, in only his 12th match on grass, Agassi accounted for Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic, out-and-out serve-and- volleyers, who proved the ideal foil for the American's remarkable reflex returns. Back then, Agassi did not have to think too hard. Hewitt exists in a different age. There are precious few grass-court specialists in the draw and none have survived in his quarter, which, on yesterday's evidence, could cause some problems for the young Australian. Like Agassi in his precocious days, Hewitt is at his best when the thinking is cut to a minimum.
Credit, though, should be given to El Aynaoui, whose surname is pronounced A-now-ee and sounds like an anagram from Countdown. Another consonant, please, Carole. A run of eight straight first-round defeats at the start of the year and a world ranking of 82 suggested that the 29-year-old Moroccan had failed to solve a few tennis puzzles in his time, particularly on grass.
His sole career title in 10 years on the ATP Tour was won on clay in Amsterdam, but his steady progress in the last couple of years at Wimbledon – second round in 1999, third round last year – suggests that, quite apart from his five languages, he is starting to become a little more fluent in the art of lawn tennis. Too late, probably.
He had done his homework on the quicksilver Hewitt. Keep the ball in play, hit to a good length and exploit the resulting sense of impatience and frustration. For a set and a half, at least, the tactics worked pretty well near to perfection. One break was enough to give Hewitt the first set after 39 minutes, but instead of taking the initiative and pushing home his advantage, the Australian became strangely becalmed, drawn into long baseline rallies which he seemed reluctant to end.
Slicing his backhand, keeping the ball low and going for the lines with a raking forehand at every opportunity, El Aynaoui worked his way back into the match and, much to the astonishment of the assembled Olympic gold medallists – and Sir Alex Ferguson – in the Royal Box broke the No 5 seed in the 12th game of the second set to level. The four fezzes in the crowd bobbed with delight.
The third set meandered along its way to much the same rhythm, with Hewitt seemingly unwilling to force the pace or change his tactics and El Aynaoui quite happy to exploit his opponent's increasingly wayward forehand. But, just as Hewitt's racket-bouncing was reaching its height, the Moroccan forgot his plan. Twice, in the ninth game of the third set, he rushed to the net behind his serve, only to be passed both times.
Hewitt could not believe his luck when a sliced backhand into the net gifted him a decisive break, and an expertly worked tie-break in the fourth set completed the victory. "I've got to go for broke for the second week," Hewitt added. Even Agassi might find that a terrifying thought.