He had been so poised. For nearly two hours on Centre Court last Sunday, Australia's Lleyton Hewitt was businesslike and measured, disposing of Argentina's David Nalbandian, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2, to win his first Wimbledon tide. It was only when he was presented with the trophy that his hands started to shake and his palms began to sweat. As he looked at his reflection in the chalice, envisioning his name engraved alongside those of forebears such as Don Budge, Rod Laver and Pete Sampras, his grip slipped. Hewitt reacted just in time to catch the trophy by the base before it fell to the grass.
It was an appropriate end to a teetering, topspin-turvy Wimbledon that defied convention at every turn. All but two of the top 16 men's seeds—including Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi—were bounced before the fourth round. The men's quarterfinals had a decidedly Univisi�n feel, as �three! of the last eight men standing were from South America, that bastion of grass-court tennis. The men's champion turned out to be a counterpuncher who goes entire sets without experiencing enough wanderlust to leave the baseline. A man allegedly stalking Serena Williams was apprehended after he crashed his bicycle into a police surveillance camera. Losing men's semifinalist Xavier Malisse was treated for a mid-match panic attack. Perhaps most surprising, when Serena and Venus Williams inevitably met in the final, they played an exceptional match.
One of the few signs of normality was the persistent drizzle that "buggered up" the second-week match schedule and, tradition be damned, renewed calls to install a retractable roof over Centre Court. "It's under consideration," Wimbledon chairman Tim Phillips said. The occasional spasm of sunlight was, however, enough to expose the ever-widening gap between the Williamses and the rest of the women's field. For years many have wondered what would happen if the sisters took the sport more seriously. Now we know: Every event becomes the Williams Invitational.
The final was preceded by the usual shabby allegations of not-so-divine secrets of the sisterhood, such as match-fixing. Asked to predict the winner, France's Am�lie Mauresmo, who was crushed by Serena in the semis, said coyly, "You have to ask them." Interviewed on French television, she added, "I don't have any [inside] information, but I think it's fixed." There were also suggestions that Serena's game would be affected by the arrest of Albrecht Stromeyer, a German who had allegedly been pursuing her for months and was arrested on July 3 outside the All England Club grounds.
The skeptics were wrong on all counts. Unlike in the previous eight Williams family affairs, the quality of tennis in the final on Saturday was high and the atmosphere, at times, electric. For 78 minutes the sisters exchanged tracer fire from the baseline. On a surface that accentuates their power, they combined for 47 unforced errors, fewer than half as many as they committed in the French Open final four weeks earlier. In the end Serena served better and didn't buckle on the big points, closing out a 7-6, 6-3 victory with a percussive service winner.
Serena, who achieved the No. 1 ranking with her semifinal victory, has won 36 of her last 40 matches, including three straight over her big sister. While she asserted that her game and Venus's are "so close right now," it's clear that Serena has become the best player in women's tennis.
The Williams sisters may be armed with insurmountable physical power, but Hewitt has a weapon every bit as formidable: his will. Endowed with enough mental strength to bend spoons on changeovers, Hewitt competes as fiercely as any player since Jimmy Connors. As the other men's seeds were falling, Hewitt wafted through his first four matches without dropping a set. In his lone tight match, a quarterfinal throwdown with Holland's Sjeng Schalken, Hewitt summoned his best tennis when it mattered most and won 7-5 in the fifth set. "Even when you're up," says Schalken, "you always have the feeling he's going to come back."
On the court Hewitt is also tennis's latest enfant terrible. He snarls constantly. He swears audibly. He stares down the opposition. He pumps his fist and thumps his chest and screams his mantra, "C'mon!" even after opponents' errors. Ordinarily it's the kind of behavior that invites physical retaliation. But Hewitt, like Pete Rose, is grudgingly admired by his peers for his full-bore intensity. "I don't know of any player," says fellow Australian Todd Woodbridge, "who doesn't wish he had some of Lleyton's mongrel."
Where does a kid raised in sleepy Adelaide in relative affluence—the family had an artificial grass tennis court in the backyard—get his junkyard-dog sensibility? Lleyton's father, Glynn, a former Aussie Rules footballer, thinks his son's slight build (he's listed generously at 5'11", 150 pounds) imbued him with the need to prove himself. Lleyton believes it's innate. "I've always been like that," he says. "I draw strength from clutch situations."
In addition to his dogged-ness, Hewitt is the fastest player in tennis, the best lobber and, arguably, the best returner. The serve-and-volley game, once thought to be a pre-req for winning Wimbledon, may be dying. The Centre Court grass was forensic evidence of that: It was green and healthy near the net and trod to dirt near the baselines. The "power baseline" game of players such as Hewitt is hastening the demise of the net rusher. "I don't mind pace," says Hewitt, the first backcourt player to win Wimbledon since Agassi a decade ago. "Even if you hit a good serve and come in, I can make it tough for you with my return or my passing shot."