NEW YORK—Tennis is a game of match-ups, we’re told, and that's certainly true in the case of Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine is eight years younger, ranked 60 spots higher, and on a good day he can hit his forehand faster than the Aussie can serve. Yet the two players are 3-3 lifetime, and after his 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-1 win Friday night at the U.S. Open, Hewitt has won the two matches they’ve played so far in 2013.
Del Potro idolized Hewitt growing up, which probably doesn’t help when he faces him. But the real explanation is that Hewitt’s game is murder on tall players like the 6'5" del Potro. Little Lleyton is a master of keeping the ball low. He loves to make it skid with slice and sidespin. He can return big serves. He knows how to move his own serve around and open up the court with it. And he has as much experience constructing points, and deconstructing opponents, as anyone alive.
Tonight Hewitt sent his slice into del Potro’s backhand corner, tempting him to run around it for an inside-out forehand, a tough shot for the big man to get over the net and back down into the court. And when del Potro did make it, Hewitt was typically waiting with a backhand up the line. Rusty played a clean match overall, hitting 42 winners against 43 errors. That was 27 fewer miscues than his opponent.
What about that opponent? Del Potro was nursing a bad wrist—“it’s not the way what I like,” he said afterward. He was forced to go to his slice backhand much of the time, which only made life more difficult against Hewitt. He forced del Potro to run and bend and dig out that slice for four hours; by the fourth hour and fifth set, the big man was out of gas—I got the feeling he double-faulted on match point just so he wouldn’t have to get into another rally. Seventy errors, eight double faults, a weakened backhand, and an erratic forehand sealed his doom. Del Potro was obviously disappointed in his press conference later; “sad,” he said, that his favorite tournament of the year was over for him so quickly and anti-climactically. He had begun the summer as the No. 1 dark horse for this title, but again injury derailed him.
In a sense, del Potro never should have had to play five sets. Hewitt won the first, served for the second, and looked to be in total control. Then the veteran flat out choked. Out of nowhere, he made a string of errors, double faulted at set point, and lost three straight games to throw away the set. When he lost the third set as well, it looked like he had thrown away the match. Hewitt does a good job of putting up a front with his bristling, confident body language. You never think this gutsy little guy is going to get tight, until he does.
Hewitt got tight again at the end of the fourth set. Again he double faulted and was broken while serving for it. But this time he righted himself before disaster struck. He righted himself so well, in fact, that he went on to play what he called one of the best tiebreakers of his career. Hewitt sealed it with a vintage backhand pass, and a vintage “C’mon!” Though I wondered, does Lleyton, after all these years, ever feel like screaming something else to celebrate? If he does, it’s probably too late: "C'mon" is the logo on his clothes. Could he be sued if he started screaming “Vamos!”?
For now, after all of the miles and surgeries, victories and defeats, Old Man Rusty’s golden years continue; he might be doing this when he’s 40. The next time he’ll do it will be Sunday against a kid he’s never played, 23-year-old Evgeny Donskoy. It’s all gravy for Hewitt in New York: He admitted tonight that, when he looked at his draw here, he hadn’t bothered looking past del Potro.