Though by no means his best season, Lleyton Hewitt had put up a decent 2007 campaign. He won the title in Las Vegas, and reached the fourth rounds of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
During the summer, he pushed Roger Federer to a third-set tiebreaker in Cincinnati, after which the Swiss compared Hewitt to a “cat with seven lives.” Though a malapropism by the reigning No. 1, Federer’s words indicated that the Australian’s fighting spirit was as strong as ever.
He looked a serious threat to go deep in the U.S. Open, the major whose surface and atmosphere best suit Hewitt’s game. After a first round romp over American Amer Delic, Hewitt faced the inconsistent Argentine Agustin Calleri.
Calleri’s best surface is clay, as he has won two titles on the dirt, but don't call him a dirtballer. With his slightly flat shots and his flowing groundstrokes, the Argentine is more a shotmaker in the mold of Petr Korda and Richard Gasquet.
Even in his straight set loss to Hewitt in Hamburg earlier that year, he’d hit about a dozen picturesque winners off both wings. The main obstacles to more success for Calleri would be fitness (his nickname is “Gordo,” which is Spanish for “fat”) and game plan, which seems to have few dimensions aside from attempting to hit picturesque winners.
When Hewitt jumped out to a 6-4 first set win, it seemed that trend would continue. The fact that the Argentine took the second by the same score was a surprise, but didn’t appear to be too great a cause for worry.
Failing to solidify his lead would come back to haunt the Aussie, though, because it opened the door for Calleri, allowing him to go to that rarest of places: The Zone.
It wasn’t his first trip there since becoming a pro: In Miami in 2004, Calleri faced three-time defending champion Andre Agassi, who at 33 was perhaps slowed by having played a match the day before. Whatever the reason, the Argentine was uninhibited that day, and quickly ran away with set one before coasting to a 6-2, 7-6 victory.
Fun fact: Though not known for his serve, Agassi actually out-aced Calleri 9-6. This suggests that Calleri beat Agassi, possibly the best returner and purest ball striker in the game’s history, primarily through his groundstrokes.
Against Hewitt in New York, he began to show why. Twice in one game, Hewitt attempted the canny tactic of serving out wide to Calleri’s forehand to open up the court. On one occasion, Calleri slapped at the ball, seemingly at knee level, sending it down the line into Hewitt’s backhand corner for a winner.
The other occasion was much the same, except this time, Calleri did something even more improbable, rifling it crosscourt into Hewitt’s forehand corner.
The Australian hung tough through the third set, despite the barrage that was soon underway, true to Federer’s “seven lives” assessment. By the fourth set, though, he began offering less resistance; Hewitt thrives on the ability to break the opponent down through counterpunching, but it’s hard to do that when the other guy isn’t letting you rally.
As Jack Kramer once said of another streaky player, Ellsworth Vines: “When (he is) on, you’d be lucky to get your racket on the ball when you served it.”
Final score: 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. Calleri hit more than 60 clean winners in those four sets despite facing one of the best defenders in the game’s history. As the announcer says at the end of the clip linked above, it was some of the best tennis you’ll ever see.
At least from the standpoint of execution, that is; Calleri hadn’t brought a better than typical game plan, but had rather aimed for the usual improbabilities, and made them.
His strategic flaws would soon be exploited, just as they had been in Miami: There, after beating Agassi, he’d fallen meekly in the next round against Vince Spadea, an American with an inferior game to the one he’d just beaten.
In the third round of the 2007 US Open, he went down in straight sets against Juan Monaco; an Argentine with what should have been a game inferior to his own.
So far this year, Calleri has a record of 3-10, a ranking of No. 258, and a career record of 208-184. Could he have had more matches like he did against Hewitt or Agassi? We’ll never know, but at 32, he probably doesn’t have more.
For one night, though, he had enough game to kill a cat all seven times.
For the introduction to the In the Zone series, click here.