LONDON—Lleyton Hewitt couldn’t have come up with a more appropriate shot to close out his quarterfinal win over Juan Martin del Potro today. Behind a skimming slice approach, the 32-year-old father of three moved in and knocked off what looked like the simplest of volleys. The ball came high to his forehand, and he did little more than put his racquet up and block it down the line. Del Potro had expected Hewitt to go cross-court, and like so many players on this slippery surface before him, he had no chance to reverse course once he’d been wrong-footed. Hewitt’s shot may have been simple, but it was also the intelligent choice of a longtime grass-court lover and expert.
I mention this shot not, primarily, to praise Rusty, though Friday was one of the finest of this four-time Queen’s champ’s periodic returns to glory. Instead, I mention his winning volley in order to praise the surface that Hewitt loves so much, and the subtle style of tennis that it can inspire, and require. Today’s performances by Hewitt and his fellow surprise semifinalist here, Marin Cilic, were enough to make me mourn the lost civilization of grass all over again.
Hewitt’s last winner could be described as a “control shot,” which is something we don’t see much of in tennis these days. At least we didn’t see many of them through the clay season that occupied us all spring. On dirt there are offensive, defensive, and touch shots; for the most part, all of them are hit with as much spin and racquet-head speed as possible. So this week it has come as a surprise to see the men at Queen’s mixing in balls that aren’t hit with maximum spin or speed or power. Grass gives you less time, and less predictability, than other surfaces; while its quality has improved over the years, you still never know when a ball will flat line, jump straight at you, or die in the weeds. If clay is exhausting from a stamina perspective, grass is draining from a watching-the-ball perspective. Especially on a windy day like today, you have to work a little harder to make contact in the right spot.
Yesterday on a swirling Court 2, Alexandr Dolgopolov, who has one of the most elaborate forehands of anyone, cried out in frustration that he had no idea where the ball was going to go next—his contact point could be anywhere on any given shot. In these cases a simple block, with nothing fancy on it, no extra spin or pace or grand ambitions, is often the smartest play. With the right placement, the grass can do the rest. These shots mostly go unnoticed on TV, but I’ve enjoyed seeing them up close at Queen’s. Even Dolgo adjusted and had success with simple slices and blocks down the middle of the court—until he imploded all over again because of an overrule.