The London bookies made talented newcomer Lleyton Hewitt the favorite to defeat Boris Becker at Wimbledon today, but anyone strolling over to Centre Court knew the 18-year-old Australian never stood a chance.
Fans stuffed into the stands with painted faces and unfurled flags, making it feel as if the staid All England club was hosting a World Cup soccer game instead of a tennis match. The majority of the people seemed to be calling out Becker's name, although that wasn't the most intimidating aspect of the raucous atmosphere. What really sent Hewitt reeling was the red-haired man on the other side of the net, the man who could evoke memories of three Wimbledon titles and four other finals appearances merely by taking a sip of water.
"I just think Boris sort of walks around like he owns the court, just sort of everything he does," Hewitt said later. "It's sort of like, `You don't deserve to be on the same court as me' a little bit, which is understandable, because he basically does own the court out there.
"I went and had a look around the court this morning to try to get the atmosphere a bit, but [during the match] I had to sort of block out a lot of it because it was all going for Boris, it sounded like. There were a few Australians down at the end, but I think they got overruled. . . . There was screaming after every point and it was tough to hear the umpire half the time."
The crowd had plenty to applaud as the 31-year-old "semi-retired" Becker dominated Hewitt from the opening ball toss. Hewitt finally seemed to gather his concentration by the third set, but he squandered two set points to allow Becker to take a 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) victory and advance to the fourth round. Seeded players Andre Agassi (4), Patrick Rafter (2), Lindsay Davenport (3) and Jana Novotna (5) also advanced, but Richard Krajicek (5), who won here in 1996, was upset by 196th-ranked qualifier Lorenzo Manta, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 4-6, 6-4.
Today's results closed Wimbledon's first week, which was as notable for its sunny weather as for top-seeded Martina Hingis's opening-round loss to a qualifier. As per tradition, there will be no play on Sunday, although the first rain of the tournament fell in scattered drops at dusk today, forcing a few matches to be postponed until Monday.
Krajicek would have preferred his match to have been stopped early as well, but Manta was able to finish him off shortly before the storm clouds arrived over Court 2, appropriately nicknamed the "graveyard of champions."
Although Manta won the first two sets, Krajicek thought he was in good shape when he claimed the third and fourth. But he got into trouble when Manta took a 4-1 lead in the fifth set, and while he came back again to even the set at 4, Manta got two match points on Krajicek's serve at 5-4.
Krajicek escaped the first match point with an ace, but he was helpless on the second, handing Manta the biggest win of his career.
"I let a few important points go, but in the end I was surprised with how well he played, because I expected him actually to get a little bit nervous," said Krajicek, who easily defeated Manta in a Davis Cup match earlier this year.
"But he just started playing better and better. I have to give credit to him, the way he finished the match."
No. 14 seed Tommy Haas also was dispatched, suffering a 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-2) loss to qualifier Wayne Arthurs, who has yet to drop a service game in the tournament.
"I refuse to be broken," Arthurs said. "It's my goal."
Agassi had less trouble with 63rd-ranked Spaniard Alberto Martin, although he did suffer a slight lapse in the third set, stringing the match out to a 6-2, 6-0, 2-6, 6-3 result.
Becker had no such lapse. After fighting off three match points in a tense five-setter to open this tournament, he had joked that his pregnant wife, Barbara, should stay away from the courts because the tension could cause an early delivery. Later, he promised her he would finish his matches more quickly, and he has made good on his word with two straight-set victories. After the first, against countryman Nicolas Kiefer, Becker took an extra minute to salute the fans at Centre Court, fearful it could be his last win there. After today's win over Hewitt, Becker paused again, turning just before the exit tunnel and raising his arms into the air.
This is the only Grand Slam Becker has played since exiting in the quarterfinals here in 1997, and he has said he will retire for good by August, when his baby is due.
"It makes it much easier to go out there when the crowd supports me that much, and I'm still trying to put on a good show," he said. "That's the attitude I have, that I'm going out there having decided to stay a couple of more days and give my opponent the match of his life."
Becker will face his toughest test yet when he meets Rafter in the fourth round Monday, although Rafter's 7-6 (7-5), 6-2, 6-2 victory over 20th-ranked Thomas Enqvist today was only his first victory on Wimbledon's Centre Court. He lost there to British favorite Tim Henman last year after having trouble with the heavily pro-Henman crowd, and he knows he isn't likely to find much less hostile conditions when he plays Becker.
"The whole crowd really lifted Henman and deflated my confidence and my style of game," Rafter said. "I know I'm going to run into the same thing with Becker as well, but hopefully I'll be better and stronger when I go out there."
CAPTION: Germany's Boris Becker, "semi-retired" at 31, pumps up Centre Court with straight-set, third-round win over Lleyton Hewitt. "I'm still trying to put on a good show," Becker says.