Dent regrets the one that got away

WIMBLEDON, England – The fans knew. The umpire knew. And Taylor Dent knew.

He shouldn't have let that one go. He shouldn't have given up on that Lleyton Hewitt backhand, shouldn't have expected the ball to sail past the baseline and give him a 6-5 lead and the serve in the critical second set of his round of 16 match here at The Championships.

"I don't know if I've ever seen that before," said Jimmy Connors, calling the game for the BBC.

But now it was too late. The ball had clipped the baseline, and Dent had all but tripped on himself trying to regroup. He never got a shot off. Hewitt won the point, then the set, and Dent was left to wonder, "What if?"

The helpless feeling was a common one for Dent on Monday. Playing in the marquee men's match of the day, on Centre Court, against emotional Hewitt, the 23-year-old American admittedly struggled to put his complete game together, playing "three-quarters good tennis" but failing to muster much of a challenge the other 25 percent of the time.

He pushed Hewitt to a fourth set, competing for more than three hours, but eventually succumbed, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (7), 6-3. Afterward, he focused on the positives. And even smiled when it came to the botched point.

"It was a long point," Dent said. "And there were times out there where I was pretty fatigued. It's been that way the whole tournament.

"I thought the ball was going long, I saw it drop on the baseline, but I had already kinda committed to letting it go. I knew it was in, everybody else knew it was in, but there was nothing I could do."

Playing in just his second tournament since returning from an ankle injury, Dent estimated his physical shape to be a "four" on a scale of 10. Earlier this week, when a reporter asked him what he weighed, he said point blank, "I don't know. I'm too scared to look."

Yet there he was Monday, less than 100 percent, pushing Hewitt to a fourth set, in the highest round he had ever advanced to at Wimbledon.

"I think I played a pretty mediocre match for my standards, and yet I had chances to be in it," Dent said. "That's both frustrating and promising. I had chances to win sets. I'm playing one of the best players in the world, playing pretty loose tennis and I'm in there."

Dent, the 30th-ranked player in the world and the son of Australian tennis star Phil Dent, has four career titles and played for the bronze at last year's Olympics, but he has had limited success in Grand Slam events. His fourth-round loss to Hewitt tied the best Grand Slam finish of his career – he exited last year's U.S. Open in the fourth round, as well.

Dent upset Hewitt in the Aussie's hometown of Adelaide in January, but Monday was a different story. After 13 minutes, Dent trailed 4-0 in the first set before fighting back to lose 6-4. He fell behind 3-1 in the second set, and lost that one, too.

"A guy like Taylor, I knew that first set was going to be pretty big out there today," Hewitt said. "From then on, I felt like I was in control."

Thanks in part to Dent's mistakes. He calls it playing loose. Not loose as in laid-back and comfortable, but loose as in error-prone. On Monday, he was plagued by 13 double faults and 39 unforced errors. At times, he even struggled with his serve, the strength of his game. In the last game, Dent wasn't able to get any of his first serves in play.

"Helping him break me, helping him hold serve easier. I wasn't doing that earlier this year," he said. "It's a little disappointing, but I can't expect too much. I try to stay as positive as I can."

From here, Dent said he plans to return home to California, train for a few days and head to Newport, R.I., where he will play in the last grass tournament of the season. From here on out, his biggest challenge will be walking the fine line between being in great tennis shape and great overall shape.

"It's a juggling act," he said. "Right now, I've been working so hard to get my game down because I feel like when I'm executing well, I'm extremely tough to beat. Then as soon as I feel like I've kind of got that under control, then, boom, fitness is No. 1."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.