WIMBLEDON, England Four previous Grand Slam champions stroked their way into the men's semifinals at Wimbledon on Wednesday, setting up a deliciously strange semifinal situation.
On Friday, the No. 1 and No. 2 men in the world rankings, two-time defending champion Roger Federer of Switzerland and 2002 champ Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, will meet on the Centre Court in what surely will have the feel of a heavyweight title fight. Two days later, as a result of the fiddling with seedings that only occurs at Wimbledon, the Federer-Hewitt victor will face another big bout. The winner will need to knock out either Andy Roddick, the American who won the 2003 U.S. Open, or 2002 Australian Open champ Thomas Johansson of Sweden to reign at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club again.
Will that make Sunday's conclusion anticlimactic? Hardly. It is more likely to make the Federer-Hewitt semi, already imbued with a history of interesting plot twists, a special occasion.
The men who have monopolized the gentlemen's singles trophy the past three years were both in fine form, winning their quarterfinals in straight sets. Federer defused Fernando Gonzalez, a Chilean with a ferocious forehand, 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 (6) on Court 1. Hewitt brought high-flying and big-dreaming Spanish lefty Feliciano Lopez back to earth, 7-5, 6-4, 7-6 (2), on Centre Court.
Johansson also advanced in straight sets, eliminating 2002 runner-up David Nalbandian of Argentina, 7-6 (5), 6-2, 6-2, on Court 1. It was Roddick, currently ranked No. 3 in the world and runner-up to Federer at Wimbledon last year, who was pushed to the limit, pulling himself together in a fifth-set push to thwart two-time semifinalist Sebastien Grosjean of France, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. Roddick also was extended to a fifth set by Daniele Bracciali of Italy in the second round, which could be a cause for concern.
This was the third consecutive year that all eight men's quarterfinalists here have come from different countries a smorgasbord of contrasting styles and personalities in the pre-eminent showcase of international tennis.
The departure from the computerized world rankings, at the discretion of Wimbledon officials, was based on an arcane formula that is supposed to adjust the seedings to reflect grass-court results in recent seasons, perhaps including Hewitt's quarterfinal loss to Federer here last year.
But on that rationale, why was French Open champion Rafael Nadal, an 18-year-old who won two rounds in his only other Wimbledon appearance, seeded No. 4, and Russian Marat Safin, who had a 6-5 Wimbledon record and often said he detests grass-court tennis, seeded No. 5? They exited in the second and third rounds, respectively Safin at the hands of Nadal's Davis Cup teammate and doubles partner, Lopez.
The switching of Hewitt and Roddick in the seedings would have made more sense if it were attributed to the fact that Hewitt came into Wimbledon short on recent match play. "A bit underdone," as John Newcombe, champion here in 1967, '70 and '71, described his countryman, making him sound like one of the rare "Sunday roasts" that are the traditional English Sabbath dinner.
After reaching the final of the Australian Open in January where he lost to Safin, who had beaten Federer in the semis Hewitt underwent surgery in March to remove a cyst from his right foot, then cracked two ribs when he slipped down a flight of stairs at home in Sydney, Australia. He missed the French Open and returned for a grass court tuneup at London's Queen's Club. Roddick has won that event the past three years, beating Grosjean each time, which might have given him a valuable extra bit of confidence in the fifth set of their match Wednesday.
"Obviously, coming off a layoff, there were a few question marks. But I didn't have too many doubts in my mind," said Hewitt, who is playing well now. He initially fumed about the seedings, but has sensibly stopped complaining about it. He has enough to do figuring out Federer, who has beaten him in their last seven meetings, without fretting over perceived injustices.
When asked Wednesday whether he was still angry, Hewitt said, "No, not really. But it is a bit strange playing in a semifinal, the No. 1 and No. 2 player in the world."
Pressed on the subject, Hewitt was realistic.
"I would definitely like it to have been a final, obviously," he said. "But you know, for me, it would be like playing a final. If you knock the best player off out there, then you're obviously going to be pretty confident going into the final Sunday. Obviously, now it's a huge opportunity, though. I do like playing the big matches when there's a lot of emotion out there, a great atmosphere. Come Friday, it's going to be no different."
Federer, who shares the enormous respect Hewitt and most other Aussies have for the oldest and most cherished of tennis championships, showed he is as much a diplomat as he is a premier player. "The rules are the way they are," he said of the lingering seeding controversy. "It is the only tournament in the world where it is like this. But I think it's understandable. We're at Wimbledon. I understand everything that Wimbledon decides really, because this is where it all started."
Now that Hewitt and Roddick are both through to the semis, Federer said, it was inevitable the question would arise again. "I think the way Andy played the last two years, I think he deserves to be No. 2," said the man everyone agrees is No. 1. "But also Lleyton deserves to be No. 2 because he's No. 2 in the world. It's a tough call."
The Federer and Hewitt quarterfinal victories were in many ways like bookends played simultaneously on Wimbledon's main arenas. Both lost their serves once in the first set, put some extra pressure on their opponents' serve at 5-6 to take that set, then pulled away in the second and ruled the third in a tiebreaker.
Gonzalez knows only one gear on his groundstrokes, particularly the booming forehand: full-throttle. He was pumped up after breaking Federer in the seventh game and holding to level the first set at 4-4. But serving at 5-6, he double-faulted to 30-40. Two points later, Federer got the advantage by racing into the forecourt to cover a short ball near the sideline and, at full sprint, hit a forehand cross-court winner at such an acute angle it was practically parallel to the net.
Truly an astonishing shot that left the audience gasping, and perhaps Gonzalez, too. On the next point, he smacked a deep forehand that Federer could only block back defensively, forcing a short ball, but then netted what should have been an easy forehand into an almost open court. One couldn't help but wonder if Federer's speed and ability to produce attacking shots from defensive positions had gotten into Gonzalez's head. The champion may have been out of court, but not out of mind.
Soon enough, Hewitt demonstrated the same qualities in a very similar situation. Lopez had started fast, taking a 4-2 lead, but lost the set by playing a sloppy service game at 5-6. Had Hewitt's speed and skill intimidated him into trying to do too much?
"I think it's all a part of their armory, that they can do that, and do it important stages of matches," said John Alexander, former Australian Davis Cupper. "It can be dispiriting for the other players. That's the sort of thing that makes great players great, and turns big matches around. You feel you have to be perfect to beat guys like that. It has a cumulative effect. You press a little bit more."
Tony Roche -- once the heir apparent to two-time Grand Slammer Rod Laver until an elbow injury curtailed his singles career, winner of four Wimbledon doubles titles with Newcombe – is now Federer's coach, and has worked extensively with Hewitt on the Australian Davis Cup team. He shared Alexander's assessment.
"Gonzalez was going for broke right from the beginning," Roche said in the Competitors' Lounge. "I think he came out with the idea that he had to rock Roger back on his heels. Roger kind of weathered the storm and took control. He did a great job of keeping the ball away from Gonzalez's forehand. And when you're playing the top guys, maybe you do think you have to take a gamble."
Roche was understandably reticent to talk about the upcoming showdown with Hewitt, but know this: Federer has won 34 successive grass-court matches, second in the Open era only to Bjorn Borg's 41 straight Wimbledon wins between 1976 and 1981, which included five straight titles. Also, Federer has beaten Hewitt seven straight since one of his most painful defeats – 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5, 6-1 in a semifinal-round Davis Cup match in 2003. That gave Hewitt an 8-2 edge in their head-to-head rivalry at the time.
"That match in a way gave me a lot of confidence because he beat me on many, many occasions before that," said Federer, recalling another strange situation -- confidence coming from a devastating defeat. "I really had the feeling I could dominate almost for three entire sets against him, and that feeling I never had before against him. I was up two sets to love and a break, serving for the match, and I was really playing incredibly well. Then he fought back and we all know what happened….
"Of course, it was a killer for me, but in that moment it gave me a lot of confidence knowing that against Lleyton I can actually get my act together for three or even more sets in a row. I think that's why I could turn around the series."
We all know what happened after that. Federer ascended to No. 1 in the world, leaving Hewitt in his wake. Now Hewitt has that big opportunity to shift the balance of power again. In the semifinals. "You know," Hewitt said. "I believe I can do it."
"Lleyton seems to be just such a natural competitor that he doesn't need that many matches to become match tough," Alexander said. "He's playing and serving well and is through to the semis relatively unscathed. But he has to play absolutely his best tennis in the next match. He plays Federer now, so there's no half measures. He really has to go for it, and he knows it."
Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.