The changing of the guard

NIRMAL SHEKAR

IT is unlikely that among the millions that watched the 2002 men's singles final of the Wimbledon tennis championships was a man called Pete Sampras. Knowing him, one would discount the chances of the virtuoso conductor of the grass court orchestra switching on his television at breakfast time in Los Angeles to watch Lleyton Hewitt play David Who?

Not that he would have missed much. For, not only was it one of the most disappointing finals of all time - in terms of its predictable patterns and the boredom it induced, perhaps the worst of the Open Era - but also it is difficult, if not impossible, to recall the last time when either finalist failed to serve and volley on a single point during the entire match!

Lleyton Hewitt with the Wimbledon Trophy.-AP

And watching Lleyton Hewitt's ruthless demolition of the Argentine debutant, David Nalbandian, even the comic farce of a streaker enjoying his five minutes of fame on the centre court seemed a welcome distraction.

But, most of all, on that Sunday afternoon at Wimbledon, time and again you wanted to cry out in desperation: Pete Sampras, where are you?

In sport, it quite often takes the demise of genius for us to give genius its due. Even then, we do it grudgingly. And never was the absence of the great man in the climactic act of Wimbledon felt more than it was when the Australian world No.1 was pounding away from the baseline to cut Nalbandian, who seldom looked his part, to size.

Last year, although Sampras was beaten in the fourth round by Roger Federer, the two men who featured in the final - Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter - gave us a match that would compare with the best in the history of Wimbledon men's finals, both in terms of sustained quality and dramatic intensity.

And how much the men's championship suffered during the second week in the absence of the giants - Sampras, Andre Agassi, a semi-retired Rafter, a recuperating Ivanisevic - was best reflected in a final that few will care to remember a month from now.

Of course, nobody in his right mind would deny the 21-year old champion his due. Hewitt did not pick the seven men who appeared across the net from him during the fortnight. As ever, he did what he is good at, rising to the occasion to race to the title - his second in Grand Slams - in a flurry of furious forehands and backhands.

Only once in the two weeks did Hewitt appear a touch shaky and that was in the quarterfinals against Sjeng Schalken when a combination of the Dutchman's sudden burst of brilliance and his own wavering concentration saw the Aussie dig himself a hole before jumping out of it in style to finish the job.

No matter all that, the point is, the men's championship was a clear loser because of all the big upsets of the first week. If you ignored all the hype about Tim Henman - at best an average-to-good player who has consistently fed on the passions of the fans to appear to be a giant on grass, which he is clearly not - the only men left during the second week with reasonable hopes of winning the title, in my mind, were Hewitt, Mark Philippoussis and Richard Krajicek.

Of the three, Philippoussis and Krajicek had already performed minor miracles in getting through three or four rounds. For both men had spent a good part of the last two years in and out of hospitals, fixing knees, elbows and what-have-you.

In the event, once Krajicek disposed of Philippousis and himself fell to a surprisingly good Xavier Malisse of Belgium, the only man left with the potential to win the championship was Hewitt, who, promptly blew Henman off the court with his best effort of the two weeks.

On that sort of form, I would say Hewitt would have fancied his chances even against a higher class serve-and-volleyer. In fact, Hewitt was so good in that semifinal that he might have matched any active player that day barring Rafter and Ivanisevic at their best or Sampras playing at or above 75 per cent.

"He has got the best mind, the best legs and he is the most fierce competitor in the business," said Gabriel Markus, Nalbandian's coach, about Hewitt ahead of the final.

Few would argue with him. As a competitor with fire in his heart, Hewitt is the new millennium version of Jimmy Connors. He is not yet the player that Connors was - perhaps he may never be - but at a time when men's tennis is going through a period of transition, a season when we are clearly witnessing a changing of the guard, the terrier-like Aussie is the one to beat.

Even after Hewitt beat a tired Sampras in straight sets in last year's U.S. Open final, quite a few critics believed that he was a one-off champion who was merely enjoying his 15 minutes of fame at the top, warming up the seat perhaps for big guns such as Marat Safin and Roger Federer.

But, that assessment might have been a mistake, not the least because Hewitt has become the first Australian champion at Wimbledon since Pat Cash in 1987. For, the young man has virtues - not the least his strength of mind and will power - that can more than compensate for the lack of a big weapon.

What is more, Hewitt's serve has steadily improved and he moves better than anybody else on the court. This apart, he has that rare ability of great champions: the X factor that helps them produce their very best when under pressure.

"Ever since I have known Lleyton he's gone better than I ever thought he could do," said the 30-year-old Todd Woodbridge, his compatriot. "I didn't expect him to win Wimbledon this time. He is a freak. People like him come along only every 15 or 20 years. As long as he stays fit I think he is going to be a four-to-six Slam winner."

Four to six? Perhaps even more. Federer has failed to live up to his billing on the big stage. Safin, the most gifted young tennis player around, does not want to put in the effort needed to travel on the path of greatness and there are not too many others around to challenge Hewitt's dominance at a time when the dinosaurs of the sport, Agassi and Sampras, are clearly travelling downhill.

Of course, Hewitt's Wimbledon campaign was helped not merely by the fall of the great champions early in the tournament but also, more importantly, by the fact that the courts and the balls were slower this year. The All England Club had laid out a thicker variety of grass that slowed down the courts and with heavier balls, the conditions were ideal for baseliners.

And, for all the talk about one-and-two-shot points in recent years at Wimbledon, to find a pair of players slug it out from the baseline for the most coveted trophy in the game is not a very pleasant sight.

Even when players like Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors did battle on the centre court, there were a few serve-and-volley points and both men ventured up judiciously to end points now and again, making for variety.

But, then, they don't make them like Borg and John McEnroe and Boris Becker anymore. Nor even like Andre Agassi.

As for Pete Sampras, never. We will never, ever, see another one like the man McEnroe himself described as "the God of tennis" last fortnight at Wimbledon.