Novak Djokovic wins with feathery touch; Lleyton Hewitt grinds to end

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 flitting 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 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.

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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