June 25, 2009

The Biggest Beneficiary

Over the last several days a lot of ink has been spilled (and many pixels lit) discussing who was most thankful for Rafael Nadal's pulling out of Wimbledon.

Roger Federer, who so famously lost his place at the top here a year ago, was the obvious first choice -- his win at Roland Garros put him back on the road to acheiving legend, and Rafa's absence here certainly takes some of the pressure off as he goes for his record fifteenth Grand Slam.

Andy Murray also has had a lot of build-up coming into the greatest tournament of the year. Having made the finals at the U.S. Open last year and acheiving his highest career ranking, he's playing some of the best tennis of his life, and after he took home the trophy at Queen's Club a few weeks ago, his first title on a grass court, he reiterated that he was finally ready to win a Major. Rafa was in his half of the draw -- if everything went as predicted by seeds, Murray would have been stalled at the semis. Now he doesn't have to worry about that.

But today it became clear that the one who benefited most from Nadal's withdrawal was Lleyton Hewitt.

The former #1 has been trying to launch a comeback after a hip injury sidelined him for much of 2008 but has been supremely frustrated along the way. He lost in the quarterfinals in Sydney, his hometown, and bowed out in the first round at the Australian Open. While he did manage to win a title in Houston -- his first since 2007 -- he didn't have to beat a single player ranked in the top seventy to do it. In Paris he had the bad luck of meeting Rafa in the third round. What should have been an exciting match turned into a walk in the park -- for Nadal. Hewitt only won five games during the demolition and was sent home after less than two hours. He couldn't have been too happy when the Wimbledon draws were released last Friday morning and showed that he was lined up to face Rafael again, but this time in the second round.

When Nadal pulled out later that afternoon, though, the entire bracket had to be redrawn. And suddenly Hewitt found himself facing the prospect of Juan Martin Del Potro in his second match. DelPo's no slouch, of course -- the twenty-year-old has an impressive resume, ranked fifth in the world, owner of five singles trophies, and he's beaten some serious competitors this year, including Nadal and Murray. Even still, Lleyton had to like his chances against the Argentine, who's much more of a contender on hard or clay courts -- Juan Martin's never made it past the second round at the All England Club.

And his relief proved to be well-justified. DelPo played well, serving bullets at an average of 123 miles per hour (a benefit of being 6'6" -- man, if I just had a couple more inches...), but ultimately fell to the more experienced Hewitt. It wasn't a short match, almost three hours, but taking only three sets, it could be a good omen for Lleyton.

The win sets up a third round meeting with Philipp Petzschner, a doubles specialist who nevertheless pulled off a win over Fernando Verdasco in Halle a few weeks back. If Lleyton survives, as he should, there are a few more obstacles in his path -- David Ferrer, Andy Roddick, and Andy Murray to name a few. Then again, Hewitt was the last man to win at Wimbledon before the tsunami of Federer and Nadal took over in 2003. I don't think he'll be able to pull off the ultimate victory, but he's in much better shape to advance than he was just a week ago -- and through no fault of his own.

We'll see if he's able to harness this momentum -- but in any case, the men's draw definitely became a bit more interesting!

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