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Hewitt Bows Out on First Day

Loss to Croatian qualifier makes him only second men's defending champion to fall in Wimbledon's first round.

June 24, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England — The bow toward the Royal Box was eliminated from Wimbledon 2003.

So was Lleyton Hewitt.

Monday, for the first time in the Open era at Wimbledon, the defending men's champion was taken out in the first round. Altogether, it had happened only once in the Championships. So now, Hewitt and 1966 champion Manuel Santana are linked forever in this dubious distinction.

Similarly, Ivo Karlovic and Charlie Pasarell will share the same sentence. But unlike Pasarell, who upset Santana in 1967, Karlovic, a 24-year-old Croatian qualifier, had never won a match at a Grand Slam, had never even played in one, having failed to qualify 10 times.

But Center Court blessed Croatia again, two years after Goran Ivanisevic gave the young nation its first Slam men's singles title. This, though, was even more surprising. The 203rd-ranked Karlovic unseated the defending champion with a masterful serving performance, hitting 18 aces, and finished with uncommon poise, defeating Hewitt, 1-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-4, in 2 hours 24 minutes.

Say it again.

Ivo Karlovic?

"I'm excited. I believe I'm going to realize some other day, I mean, that I win," said Karlovic, who almost lost in qualifying here last week.

Hewitt didn't seem to know quite what to make of it. He said he had not seen the Croatian play before but had spotted him walking around.

Yeah, it's pretty hard to miss someone 6 feet 10. The Croatian, said to be the tallest player ever at Wimbledon, loomed almost a foot taller than Hewitt, making the top-seeded Australian look like a smurf when they walked off the court. In fact, Karlovic had to duck to get through the door. The other top men and women advanced with little trouble. Hewitt's loss, of course, boosted the title hopes of fifth-seeded Andy Roddick, who is in the same quarter of the draw. Roddick beat Davide Sanguinetti of Italy, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3, hitting 14 aces and facing only three break points.

On the women's side, No. 4 Venus Williams defeated qualifier Stanislava Hrozenska of Slovakia, 6-2, 6-2, and No. 2 Kim Clijsters of Belgium beat Rossana Neffa-De Los Rios of Paraguay, 6-0, 6-0. Clijsters' 33-minute victory on Center Court followed Karlovic-Hewitt, as the crowd was still buzzing about the unexpected loss of Clijsters' boyfriend, Hewitt.

Almost as remarkable as the result was the way it unfolded. Hewitt won the first set, 6-1, in 19 minutes and had a set point at 5-4 to take a commanding lead, but seemed to ease off. He led the tiebreaker, 5-4, and lost the final three points.

"I felt like I was the dominant player for a set and a half," Hewitt said. "If I took that chance [on set point], been up two sets to love, there's probably a good chance I wouldn't be out of the tournament."

Hewitt was embroiled in controversy before Wimbledon. His coach, Jason Stoltenberg, decided to step down after the French Open. And Hewitt filed a lawsuit in Australia against the ATP last week in a continuing battle over a fine.

"It was unfortunate that it came out at that time," Stoltenberg said on an Australian television network. "I think it took the shine off the fact he was defending Wimbledon. It's the biggest tournament of the year and the one he holds the dearest."

As the match progressed, Hewitt lacked his usual sharpness. Then again, how many players can hit a lob over someone who is 6-10? Despite his size, the young Croatian displayed agility and good hands at the net.

The service break in the third set occurred early, in the fourth game, when Hewitt double-faulted on break point. In the fourth set, the decisive break came in the ninth game. Recognizing the special moment, an appreciative crowd gave the Croatian a prolonged round of applause as he walked to the baseline to serve for the match after the 5-4 changeover.

He showed no sign of nerves, holding at love, hitting overheads on the first two points and winning it when Hewitt hit a forehand service return in the net.

Later, Karlovic showed just as much heart in the interview room. He suffers from a stuttering problem but took on the difficulty of answering questions in a second language. His coach, Goran Oresic, who has been with him for six months, said Karlovic had been going to a speech therapist.

"As you all could see and hear, I have a speech -- I don't know how to say -- difficulty. But I try to work it and be better," said Karlovic, who received a congratulatory phone call from Ivanisevic.

He did show a wry sense of humor when asked whether his parents were tall.

"No, average, average. Maybe I don't know who is tall. Postman, maybe," he said, smiling.

Said Oresic, "I didn't think he's such a brave guy, but he surprise me every day. I say, let's do some more."

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