June 23, 2011 -- Lleyton Hewitt had that familiar crazed look about him this afternoon on Centre Court. He dove for shots, served and volleyed, and played his Aussie grass court tennis to the delight of clusters of compatriot fans. His victim -- Robin Soderling -- the #5 seed. Hewitt came within a blade's width of grass of upsetting the big-serving Swede.
Fernando Gonzalez dismissed Alexandr Dolgopolov on Tuesday, but it didn't get much attention. Today he eased into the third round in straight sets without much fanfare. A former number five player in the world, Gonzalez has his eye on the 2012 London Olympics. In April he was convinced his career might be near its end.
Argentine David Nalbandian inched his way to the third round today, too. A semifinalist in 2008, Nalbandian is seeded #28. A fervent supporter of Davis Cup, Nalbandian has struggled with consistency on tour.
Hewitt, Gonzalez, and Nalbandian have had exceptional tennis careers. Hewitt has 28 tour titles and two Grand Slams: 2001 U. S. Open and 2002 Wimbledon. Gonzalez has 11 tour titles and three Olympic medals. David Nalbandian has 11 career tour titles in his trophy case, too, and had, at one time, been a thorn in Roger Federer's side.
So why would these careerists come back after major hip surgeries, knee injuries, and tender hamstring pulls when they all have pretty much reached the twilight of their careers?
"Obviously what I play for these days are the Grand Slams," Hewitt told PerthNow.com earlier this year. Today, the 30-year-old played like he meant every word of that.
Hewitt has had two hip surgeries -- his left in 2008 and right in January 2010. He beat Federer in Halle in June, injured his right hand in Davis Cup in the fall, and took the rest of the year off. He also had toe surgery this spring. With his wife Beck Cartwright, he has a family of three young children. It's a wonder he just doesn't pack it in.
But that's not Lleyton Hewitt. He's a fighter and a competitor. He has alienated bunches of fans throughout his 13-year career with insolent behavior, accusations of racial slurs, and downright nasty antics on court. His jittery demeanor reflects his internal intensity. And his drive to give one hundred percent is never in doubt.
Today he successfully pressed Soderling to within a set of defeat. Soderling then picked up the pace of his shots and cut down on unforced errors off his ground game. The only bad game Hewitt played in the entire five sets was the last one he served to give up the match at love. The score was 67(5) 36 75 64 64.
"It's the first in my career that I came back from two sets down," Soderling told Gary Richards of the BBC immediately after leaving Centre Court (actually Soderling's memory was faulty--he had done it twice before). "I took it one point at a time, trying to forget the scoreline. If I could raise my game -- I had chances."
Although Hewitt lost his after having an impressive lead, Soderling added, "I hope he's going to be around for a while. This was the best match we've played."
Hewitt is ranked #123 currently. Whether he sticks around and tries to qualify for American hard court tournaments is an unanswered question. "I don't know if he'll be able to handle a 100+ ranking," Mark Woodford noted earlier today on Radio Wimbledon. Woodford is one-half of the famous Woodford and Woodward doubles team from Australia, second only to the Bryan Brothers in career titles.
Fernando Gonzalez said that his entry into The Serbian Open this spring was mostly symbolic. He had been off for eight months after hip surgery in the fall, 2010. He entered Belgrade with little confidence. He left in the second round and withdrew from Roland Garros with a knee injury. But his victory today can only feed his passion about the Olympics and his desire to play in them when London hosts The Games in 2012.
Gonzalez is known as The Peoples Champion in his home country of Chile. His cracking tennis game -- with a signature forehand that's been clocked up to 120 MPH -- directly contrasts with his easygoing demeanor off court. His speaks softly, with candor, but doesn't malign people -- especially his many friends on tour.
His best showing at Wimbledon was the quarterfinals in 2005, where he lost to Federer. His best Grand Slam result came in 2007 at The Australian Open. He lost in the finals there to Federer. Gonzalez will be 31 in July. He entered Wimbledon with a protected ranking of #478.
David Nalbandian had hip surgery in May, 2009. Out over four months, he returned only to strain a hamstring muscle in the spring of 2010. In Washington DC, entered as a wildcard and ranked #117, he won the Legg Mason Tennis Classic and then extended his match-winning streak to a career high eleven.
No one has ever doubted Nalbandian's ability on the tennis court. He came out of nowhere in 2008 at Wimbledon, and left having made the semifinals. He plays best on hard courts, which is a bit odd for an Argentine. He is a powerfully built athlete that is capable of unleashing stinging shots from every possible spot on a court.
Nalbandian is 29 years old. He came up through the juniors with Federer and Gonzalez. His intentions for lengthening his career aren't known right now. For now, he remains a clear contender at this year's Wimbledon.
His next opponent ... Roger Federer.