An extraordinary Nadal makes Hewitt look ordinary
PARIS – Rafael Nadal managed to make Lleyton Hewitt, the guy who gets to every ball, a bit of a bystander.Nadal made Hewitt, as fierce a competitor as there is, go quietly. For two sets in the French Open’s fourth round Monday, Nadal made Hewitt, a past champion at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, look more like a guy making his Grand Slam debut.Playing as well as he has at the tournament he’s dominated lately, Nadal improved to 18-0 at Roland Garros and moved closer to a third consecutive French Open title by beating Hewitt 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (5) for a spot in the quarterfinals.”Early on, he was sort of on his own,” Hewitt acknowledged. “It was hard for me to press or do anything against him.”Nadal’s take on his performance?”Perfect play,” said the No. 2-seeded Spaniard, who leads the tour in wins (40) and titles (four) in 2007. “Ten times better today than the last days, no?”And that’s coming from a guy who hasn’t dropped a set through four rounds, the first time he’s done that during his run at Roland Garros. Next up: a quarterfinal Wednesday against friend, mentor and countryman Carlos Moya. Moya, the 1998 French Open champion, got past Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-5.Nadal, 21, and Moya, 30, are both from the island of Mallorca. They’ve known each other for years, as practice partners and pals, but Moya passed on the chance to take credit for the kid’s success.”I don’t think he learned anything from me,” Moya said. “And if he did, he did it much better than me.”Nadal insisted he’s not thinking toward a possible rematch in the final against No. 1 Roger Federer, the man who ended his record 81-match winning streak on clay at the Hamburg Masters final last month.Before that, Nadal hadn’t lost on the slow surface since an April 2005 match against Igor Andreev – the 125th-ranked Russian who beat Andy Roddick in the first round last week and won Monday to reach his first major quarterfinal.”It’s not enough,” said Andreev, who knocked off No. 16 Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus 2-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-4. “I feel like I can do something more here.”His opponent Wednesday will be No. 6 Novak Djokovic of Serbia, a 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (1) winner over Fernando Verdasco of Spain.The two other men’s quarterfinals are Tuesday, when 10-time major champion Federer faces No. 9 Tommy Robredo, and No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko meets No. 19 Guillermo Canas. Tuesday’s schedule also includes all of the women’s quarterfinals, highlighted by Justine Henin against Serena Williams in a matchup between players who own a total of 13 Grand Slam titles.Nadal and Hewitt have two apiece, but that hardly was apparent from the way things began Monday. Nadal won 16 of the match’s first 20 points en route to a 4-0 lead, then began the second set similarly, taking 14 of the first 20 points.As good a mover as Hewitt is, Nadal outhustled him. Repeatedly, Hewitt would hit an apparent winner, and Nadal would get to it, extending the point. In the end, Nadal won 23 of the 35 exchanges that lasted at least 10 strokes.”He moves so well on his side of the court on this surface,” No. 14 Hewitt said, “that you feel like you’ve got to hit perfect shots against him.”The only blip for Nadal came near the end. He broke Hewitt for a 6-5 lead in the third set, then served for the match – and the Australian broke right back. In the tiebreaker, Hewitt led 4-2, then 5-4, but missed three straight forehands.”Always a very good test, and very tough match, because he’s a winner,” Nadal said about Hewitt, who’s 4-3 in their career meetings.Nadal owns a 3-2 edge over Moya, though they’ve never met at a major.And while they go way back, and now pass the time playing video games against each other, make no mistake: Neither will let any of that affect them Wednesday.”Rafa will be an opponent, a rival,” Moya said. “On the court, you don’t have any friends.”He’s the oldest player left; the 35-year-old Bjorkman was the oldest at the start of the tournament.Bjorkman took a 5-2 lead Monday, but was broken when serving for the first set. Then he blew a 5-3 edge in the tiebreaker when Moya took the last four points, ending the set with a net-cord winner.Bjorkman was broken to end the second set, then got his right shoulder massaged by a trainer.”You know, I’m 35,” Bjorkman said. “My shoulder just got more tired than it normally does.”At 20, Djokovic is the youngest man remaining. And while he made the 2006 quarterfinals at the French, too, he’s more confident this time.”Last year, I honestly didn’t expect to be in the quarterfinals,” he said. “I was pretty much satisfied with my achievement. This year is much different.”Like Moya, he was helped by a fortuitous net cord. At 3-1 in the tiebreaker, Djokovic ended a 17-stroke exchange with a backhand that caught the tape, popped into the air and dropped over for a winner.While Djokovic crossed himself, Verdasco grabbed the ball and walked over to hide it in his racket bag – where it stayed until the match ended.
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