Flight or fight? On open­ing day you get both

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - BILL DWYRE

LON­DON — They were sched­uled to play 65 matches on open­ing day at Wim­ble­don on Mon­day. When the smoke cleared, a lit­tle bird and an ag­ing Aussie had stolen the show.

The bird was a name­less spar­row. The Aussie had a name, Lley­ton He­witt, and a big rep­u­ta­tion, hav­ing won two ma­jor tour­na­ments and been the No. 1 player in the world for 75 weeks, start­ing in 2001.

As de­fend­ing men’s cham­pion, top- seeded Novak Djokovic had kicked off the event on the man­i­cured and prim- and- proper Cen­ter Court grass, which by Fri­day will look like a 5- year- old’s sand­box.

He made fairly short work of his op­po­nent, No. 33 Philipp Kohlschreiber, by break­ing the Ger­man’s serve at 4- 5 three times in his 6- 4, 6- 4, 6- 4 vic­tory.

Dur­ing the match, in front of the usual prop­erly dressed and prop­erly cour­te­ous Cen­ter Court crowd, a tiny spar­row kept f lit­ting around and set­tling down within pe­riph­eral vi­sion, some­times within reach, of one player or the other.

Ball boys were dis­patched to shoo him or her away — Djokovic later re­ferred to the spar­row as “her,” but his ac­tual ex­per­tise in gen­der iden­ti­fi­ca­tion wasn’t clear — but the spar­row just kept com­ing back and set­tling down on the grass near the play­ers.

Like He­witt, the bird had amaz­ing stay­ing power.

“The bird didn’t want to go away,” Djokovic said. “It was a re­ally funny mo­ment on the court.” He ex­panded later. “From where I come from, from the cap­i­tal of Ser­bia, Bel­grade, there’s a spe­cial spar­row bird. I be­lieve this bird came all the way from Bel­grade to help me.

“At one point, Kohlschreiber was serv­ing at the ad­van­tage side, be­tween the first and sec­ond [ serves], and the bird landed lit­er­ally very close to the side­line. She stayed there un­til I won that point . . . the bird from Bel­grade stayed for the en­tire match.”

So did He­witt, against Fin­nish jour­ney­man Jarkko Niem­i­nen.

He­witt lost, 3- 6, 6- 3, 4- 6, 6- 0, 11- 9. The match took four hours.

It also marked the last time that He­witt, 2002 Wim­ble­don and 2001 U. S. Open cham­pion, would play here. He has an­nounced that he will re­tire at next year’s Aus­tralian Open, which will be the month be­fore he turns 35.

It was a wild and noisy match. A small group of Aussie fans wear­ing yel­low shirts that said “Fa­nat­ics” whooped and hollered and chanted their sup­port of He­witt for the du­ra­tion. And they were on their feet when he lost and said his good­byes to the place he later called “the home of ten­nis.”

He paused at the exit, gave a lit­tle thumbs- up and then a lit­tle wave. He de­parted with a slight limp, a sun­burned face and a slight smile, one that might be cat­e­go­rized as nos­tal­gic.

Later, he didn’t duck the ques­tions about the emo­tions of such fi­nal­ity, at such a spe­cial place for him.

“Yesterday,” he said, “I went out and sat at Cen­ter Court, lis­tened to the mu­sic, kind of soaked it up.”

Later, he added, “I don’t get the same sort of feel­ing walk­ing onto the grounds of other places like I do when I come here.”

He­witt, too short at 5 feet 11 to be a big server, was al­ways a grinder, a player who didn’t so much win matches as wear down and out­last op­po­nents. Asked about his last set at Wim­ble­don be­ing 11- 9, he said, “I guess that would pretty much sum up my ca­reer.”

He­witt and Niem­i­nen played 354 points, Niem­i­nen win­ning 183 and He­witt 171. The fifth set took 95 min­utes. Many play­ers would have folded their tents af­ter los­ing a fourth set, 6- 0. In 17 years on the tour, He­witt never once folded his tent.

There is a kicker to this story.

Had He­witt won — had he some­how man­aged to drag his oft- sur­gi­cally re­paired body around the court long enough, and suc­cess­fully enough, to beat Niem­i­nen — his next op­po­nent would have been Djokovic.

What a re­ward for four hours of blood, sweat and tears — a match against the best player in the world; a chance for his grand fi­nale to not be very grand.

Nev­er­the­less, He­witt prob­a­bly would have been thrilled, de­spite the like­li­hood that he also would have been de­mol­ished. Per­haps just the fact that it would give him one more match on Cen­ter Court might have brought some spe­cial karma. It might not have been all that quick and dirty.

But then, we can’t for­get Djokovic’s new­found ad­van­tage. He has a bird in the hand.

Tim I re­land As­so­ci­ated Press

FOR­MER world No. 1 Lley­ton He­witt, a gritty com­peti­tor, said farewell to Wim­ble­don Mon­day.

Glyn Kirk Agence France- Presse/ Getty I mages

SHOW­ING A FEATH­ERY TOUCH, top- ranked de­fend­ing cham­pion Novak Djokovic tries, ever so gen­tly, to con­vince a rogue spar­row to leave Cen­ter Court.

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