The Grass Grows Greener On the Other Side: Hewitt dumps del Potro

Wimbledon 2009
By Matthew Zemek, June 26th, 2009

lleyton-hewittThe not-so-secret key to tennis success lies not in one’s shots, but in the footwork needed to set them up. Juan Martin del Potro might know how to move his feet on hard courts and clay courts, but on a Thursday afternoon at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, the South American found out that grass still grows greener for his opponents.

Lleyton Hewitt, one year removed from surgery and a middle-aged man in tennis terms, flashed the form that carried the Australian to the 2002 Wimbledon title at the age of 21. Now 28 years old, Hewitt reminded a Centre Court crowd that he can still get around on grass by knocking out the fifth-seeded del Potro in straight sets. The 6-3, 7-5, 7-5 triumph sends a resurgent Hewitt into Saturday’s third round, while del Potro’s streak of three consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals was abruptly halted at SW19.

Why was Hewitt–a non-factor at slams over the past two and a half years–suddenly able to open up the top quarter of the gentlemen’s singles draw? Very simply, the two-time major champion felt comfortable moving on the living, breathing blades of turf that cover the world’s most famous tennis court.

It’s instructive to note that del Potro’s rise on the ATP Tour was built on the strength of a dominating summer hardcourt season in 2008, which culminated with a quarterfinal showing at last year’s U.S. Open. The Argentine then continued his rise in the rankings with more hardcourt conquests. He began 2009 by reaching the quarters again in Australia, and then upsetting Rafael Nadal to reach the semis of the prestigious Sony Ericsson Open, sometimes referred to as the “fifth major” in professional tennis. When Delpo then stacked together semifinal runs at the Madrid Open and the French Open, it became just as clear that this South American star could carry his 6-foot-6 body quite effectively on red clay as well. Skeptics often questioned Delpo’s court coverage, given his tall and lanky frame, but after the past 10 months of high-level performances, this 20-year-old had proven that he can defend and retrieve on a world-class scale.

There’s just one achilles heel that continues to dog del Potro, however, and it resurfaced on Thursday against the nimbler, quicker Hewitt: Movement on grass.

There’s something about the green stuff that played into Hewitt’s hands, while unsettling del Potro to an alarming degree. That “something” is not a mystery, however–it’s simply the lack of a clean, neutral and high bounce, delivered on a consistent basis.

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Hardcourts represent the ultimate neutral surface in tennis, but even clay courts provide a regularity of bounce; the key to understanding clay is gauging the level of the bounce, which is determined by the wetness of the court. A slow, moist clay court will produce lower bounces, while a fast, sun-hardened clay court will produce higher bounces that kick to a player’s shoulder. Dirtballers need to adjust to the springiness of a clay court, but once they do, they can then know that the ball will kick off the ground at a certain angle.

The difficulty inherent to grass-court tennis, then, is that the same bounce simply can’t be relied on from point to point. On day one of Wimbledon–or any grass-court tournament, for that matter–the playing surface is entirely green. But after just a few matches on a court, the baselines get worn down, creating patches of dirt and uneven grass. As a tournament continues, the amount of chewed-up real estate continues to grow. Naturally, this turns grass-court tennis into an adventure. Depending on the trajectory of shots and the combinations of spin and pace employed during a match, the path of a bounce can vary to a considerable degree. The players who succeed on grass, therefore, are the men (and women) who can adjust to bad bounces and merely keep the ball in play. This ability to adjust is partly a product of natural talent, but it’s also shaped by one’s body type and that aforementioned factor called footwork.

Roger Federer has fared so well at Wimbledon over the years because the Swiss has a preferred hitting zone that’s low to the ground. This is perfect for grass-court competition, and the diminutive Hewitt–who stands at 5-foot-11–took advantage of that very dynamic against del Potro.

Hewitt kept his returns low, and rarely hit groundstrokes that sat up for the Argentine. With savvy shot selection and stronger nerves under pressure, Hewitt proved superior in every critical juncture of the match. The Australian saved all six break points to prevail in the first set, and then broke del Potro at 5-all in each of the last two sets. When serving at 6-5 in each of those situations, Hewitt felt his fair share of nerves, particularly in the second stanza, when del Potro gained a 15-30 opening and had a backhand lined up for 15-40. The shot, made easy by a weak reply from Hewitt, rocketed wide of the sideline, however. Instead of having two break points to force a second-set tiebreak and potentially level the match at a set apiece, del Potro found himself in a 30-all situation. Hewitt, given a reprieve, took advantage to hold for a two-set lead.

Buoyed by his ability to prevail at the business end of a set, Hewitt once again took command in the eleventh and twelfth games of the third set, after the two men split the first 10 games. Fueled by his footwork, but also a growing sense of confidence against an opponent who is still learning how to move on grass, Hewitt gave Australians reason to hope that “Rusty,” as he’s nicknamed, could play deep into this year’s Wimbledon, perhaps as far as the quarterfinals for a star-studded showdown against sixth-seeded American Andy Roddick.

And as for Juan Martin del Potro? He’ll be thankful that he doesn’t have to play a grass-court match for another 11 months. By that time, perhaps his footwork on the green stuff will improve. It will need to, as today’s match so conclusively showed.

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