After taking out top seed Andre Agassi on Saturday night, unseeded Gilles Muller simply didn't have enough left to stop Lleyton Hewitt in the final of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic yesterday afternoon as the Australian earned his third ATP title of the year.
Hewitt beat Muller, 6-3, 6-4, in just 1 hour 17 minutes on Center Court in the less-than-packed William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center.
The match was the first final for Muller, a 21-year-old Luxembourg native who had never been tested in such a big match on a national stage. In fact, Muller has won just a single match on the ATP tour. And it showed.
Muller slumped as he sat after quickly giving up the first set to No. 2 seed Hewitt. With his shoulders down, Muller's body language projected a quick second set.
"It was difficult to find the rhythm and, then again, maybe sometimes I was also trying to put too much pressure," Muller said. "Against Agassi, he's moving so good, Agassi, but sometimes when you hit a good shot, the ball is not coming back. But against Lleyton, the ball every time was coming back."
Yet, in just his sixth ATP-level tournament, Muller didn't go down easily in the second set, though he couldn't capitalize on the numerous opportunities he was given by his opponent. Muller, who had just two break chances during the match, saw both of them converted on double faults by Hewitt.
"I just didn't get enough first serves in those two games," said Hewitt, who had six aces and one double fault in the first set and two aces and three double faults in the second. "I served extremely well up to that point, probably as well as I served all tournament up to that point. I just played two loose service games. . . . I just couldn't buy a first serve in those two games. I sort of put myself under a little bit of pressure right from the start, but then again I returned well in the next game."
Muller broke Hewitt in the seventh game of the second set, getting the match back on serve. But then he handed his service game back to the formerly top-ranked Australian, whose points came entirely on four unforced errors.
Despite the gift, once again Hewitt didn't make it easy on himself. Needing only to serve out to take the match and the title, Hewitt returned the favor with three unforced errors and his second double-fault giveaway to breathe new life into his opponent.
With the opportunity, which came on the match's third straight break, Muller had a chance to serve to even the second set at five games apiece. But he double faulted to give his opponent two break points and, with the match on the line, tried a startlingly weak drop shot that hit halfway down the net, sealing Hewitt's victory.
"I was maybe a little too tight today," Muller said. "I was not nervous because I told myself to just enjoy it, but he was so difficult to play, almost like you play against the wall. I knew he was running so fast. He was running everywhere. He was bringing everything back on the line."
In the end, Hewitt simply had too many chances on Muller's strength, his serve. With 16 break-point opportunities, it was all Muller could do to save 11, leaving Hewitt with five breaks.
"I wanted to win today. I knew I was going to have a chance," Muller said. "I think if I played, maybe, like [Saturday], maybe it could be a little bit closer. I cannot lose my serve like four times in the set. It was just too much, especially against a player like Hewitt."
By making the final, Muller's ranking will shoot into the top 100. Muller, who has won just less than $70,000 this year, received the biggest payday of his career, $40,700 for making the final.
If two players drop out of the main draw for the U.S. Open, Muller would be admitted directly into the main draw. Otherwise he begins playing in the qualifier either on Tuesday or Wednesday.
While Muller, a former top-ranked junior player, might be starting an upswing in his professional career, the 23-year-old Hewitt could be approaching the form he demonstrated in 2001 when he finished the year in the top spot on the ATP tour.
After reaching the round of 16 in the Australian Open and the quarterfinals in the French Open and Wimbledon in 2004, Hewitt's current roll -- two straight finals appearances and one win -- should stand him in good stead as he tries for his first Slam since he took the 2002 Wimbledon title.
Hewitt moves on to the ATP stop on Long Island next week, in his final preparation for the U.S. Open. The TD Waterhouse Cup Championships will be Hewitt's third straight tournament leading up to the Open, which begins in two weeks in New York.
"I'm happy with where my game's at," Hewitt said. "Just to get some more matches, try to keep the roll going. Match toughness. The same balls, everything, as the U.S. Open. Just try to continue what I've built, work on just sharpening a couple of areas before the U.S. Open."