28 June 2008

Wimbledon  is a bad place if you have lost something. There are masses of people everywhere and no one wants to help you. It is even worse if you are on court with the reverse capped figure of Lleyton Hewitt and the thing which you have lost is your game.

That is what it was like for Italy’s 22-year-old Simone Bolelli as he slid out of the first set in an embarrassing 27 minutes and eventually lost 6-1, 6-3, 7-6. He could be forgiven for taking a few games to adjust to the grass courts against someone who is now, at 27, described as “the veteran Aussie”. But by the time he was double-faulting his way to that first set, Bolelli was becoming that very worst of things at the All England Club – an object of pity.

A very handsome object. At 6ft with dark brush-cut hair, designer stubble, a silver earring in his left lobe, a lion rampant on a neck chain and a leather-strapped watch on the wrist, he was the very symbol of Bologna elegance. He also moved gracefully, hit sweetly too. The trouble was that he could not hit between the lines enough. Or was not allowed to by Hewitt.

How Bolelli must hate the name. Last year’s first visit to Wimbledon was ended by a Lleyton masterclass in which the 2002 champion allowed him five games. Now here he was, fresh from seeing off the not exactly awesome challenge of Alex Bogdanovic, in  once again with this fidgety piece of perpetual motion insistent on playing with almost unsporting intensity.

It was the strangest of matches to watch, for a lot of what Bolelli did was stylishly effective. He had a good flowing serve and some nice and varied ground strokes. But it was as if he was happy to practise his cross-court returns and top-spin forehands to keep things in play while up at the other end Hewitt was scurrying about looking as if he would rather die than lose a single point.

Against Bolelli there seemed something manufactured about the intensity. For Lleyton was never under any threat and Hewitt coasting is an animal acting against its nature.

Of course, Simone is a fine player on clay courts but on this surface it took until he was faced with break points in the final set at 3-4 and match points at 4-5 before his inhibitions fell away and his talent shone. He even forced Hewitt to turn and bellow out one of his trademark, fist clenched “come on” challenges to the world in general.

Federer now awaits. That will be the real thing.

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