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Monday, January 25, 2010
Federer continues to torment Hewitt


MELBOURNE, Australia -- Nathan Healey, the coach of Lleyton Hewitt, knows how he wants to resurrect the two-time Grand Slam champion's game. It involves heading to the net more rather than "digging a trench" on the baseline.

"I'm just trying to show him there's a bigger picture out there over five sets," said Healey, a former Australian doubles pro who lives in Pennsylvania. "You have to accumulate pressure and you get rewards for that. Even if he loses the points at the net and coming forward, he's still going to be keeping these guys off balance, and the rest of his game, normal rally balls, will be more effective."

Well, little worked for Hewitt on Monday in a match seemingly all of Australia looked forward to. The home hope was outclassed, again, by world No. 1 Roger Federer, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, making it 15 straight defeats against Federer. In their best-of-five encounters, only Federer's 6-0, 7-6 (3) 6-0 rout in the 2004 U.S. Open final was more lopsided.

"Tonight was as good as the U.S. Open final," Hewitt told reporters. "He was able to keep it up the whole match."

Based on Monday's display, Hewitt will have to wait much longer to end the skid. The torment started here in Melbourne six years ago, in the same round.

So, if Federer beats suddenly colorful Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals Wednesday, as one would expect, the Swiss lands in a Grand Slam semifinal for a 23rd straight occasion, dating to Wimbledon in 2004. Although Davydenko has topped Federer twice in a row, they weren't in majors. A big difference.

The last player to oust Federer prior to a major semifinal was far more accomplished than Davydenko. It was three-time French Open winner Gustavo Kuerten, and that match was at … Roland Garros.

"Hardly made any unforced errors," Federer, who committed 30, coupled with 49 winners, told reporters. "If there were some, they were at moments I can live with. I was really able to press on the offensive, serve well when I had to, and I moved well, as well."

Davydenko appeared shaky in a five-set win over Fernando Verdasco earlier Monday, unable to close things out in a fourth-set tiebreaker when leading 5-4 with two serves to come. This after Verdasco almost choked away the fourth set himself.

Hewitt's hyping up his performance after beating Marcos Baghdatis in the third round on Saturday was strange. Baghdatis couldn't hit a forehand and had little acceleration on his shots, allowing Hewitt to prosper. To no one's surprise, the Cypriot retired with a shoulder injury in less than an hour.

Against Federer, Hewitt approached the net only three times in the first set, winning two. Hewitt, as we know, won't win many points serving and volleying and chipping and charging. His task was to get Federer out of position on the baseline, then come in and put away a comfortable volley. No luck.

Once Hewitt lost the first set so convincingly, his thought process probably evaporated.

As we've seen with Andy Roddick in the past, it's easy to remain in a comfort zone and do what comes naturally -- which, for Hewitt, is digging that trench. Federer predictably tore Hewitt apart from the baseline. Unhurried and unthreatened, Federer lights up the place. At one instance in the third, Federer toyed with Hewitt, luring him in with a wicked backhand slice, then passing him with a backhand down the line.

One of the loudest cheers of the night at Rod Laver Arena came when Federer deposited a short forehand into the net at 2-2 in the third. The loudest, however, arose when Hewitt crunched a second serve return down the line for a clean winner on break point at 3-4.

The very next point, he did everything right, placing a backhand volley on the baseline. Federer replied with a wonderful forehand pass down the line. The crosscourt forehand that Federer unleashed to break in the ninth game left the crowd gasping.

In December, Hewitt, a former No. 1, said he'd like to return to the top five as soon as possible. Thinking big is always good. The way he struck the ball against Federer, he said, he'd have fancied his chances against some players left in the draw. That's a tad optimistic, when you consider Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Marin Cilic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Novak Djokovic, Roddick and Davydenko -- who'd still be considered a favorite against him -- are still around.

Can Hewitt, 29 next month, ever compete with the upper echelon on a consistent basis again? No way.