03 Dec 2017

Hewett, de Groot, Wagner win NEC Masters titles

News Article

By Clive White

Photo: Tennis FoundationAlfie Hewett (GBR)

David Wagner apart, youth had its way at the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters in Loughborough as 19-year-old Alfie Hewett and 20-year-old Diede de Groot emerged victorious in Sunday’s finals. Neither match was a classic but surely there are only so many classics you can cram into five days of tennis.

After beating an opponent he hadn’t beaten in nine matches (after saving two match points) and then thrashing a two-time Masters champion, young Hewett had pretty much exhausted the full list of superlatives. Even then in this all-British final he was knocked from pillar to post in the first three games by Gordon Reid.

Less than a year ago, maybe even a few months ago, that would have been enough to leave him spiritually flattened. But Hewett, the world No. 2, has become a different animal just recently, a very resilient individual who doesn’t know when he is beaten, and he won the next eight games before going on to crush Reid, his doubles partner and fellow Rio Paralympic medallist, 63 62.

“This week I’ve had to dig to depths I’ve never really dug before,” said this astonishingly mature young man who has just three more days to enjoy his teens. “I brought out something in me which I didn’t really believe was there and it gives me a lot of confidence going into future matches.

“No matter how exhausted I am, no matter how much I want to quit I can always battle against it and find a way. I got through the group stages here and played two of the best matches I’ve ever played in my life.”

The final may not have scaled the dizzy heights of his wins against Stephane Houdet, of France, and Joachim Gerard, of Belgium, in the quarters and semis, respectively, but it still required a solid and mature performance to beat a player who has not enjoyed the best of years after his stunning success of 2016, when Reid won gold and silver in singles and doubles as well as two Grand Slam singles titles.

So much out of love with the sport had he fallen that in the summer he contemplated giving up the sport. To have reached this final took a huge physical and mental effort which hopefully will have rekindled his passion for the game. Both men will need each other’s rivalry to carry them to still greater heights.

For three games, though, Reid played quite magnificently, his backhand, arguably the most aesthetically pleasing in the sport, was working a treat as was his serve.

“Arms up in the air, I didn’t know what to do because he was taking everything very early, and very powerful. I said to myself ‘if he carries on playing like that for two sets he deserves to win it’,” said Hewett.

But Reid didn’t. A disputed line call on the first point of the third game didn’t help him maintain his rhythm any but he wasn’t blaming it for his collapse.

“Maybe Alfie was a little bit nervous and once he got over that he made it more difficult for me.”

“My arms felt a little bit heavier, I was moving a bit slower and even just a fraction can be the difference. I felt like a boxer who had punched himself out in the first three rounds. In comparison to how I’ve been feeling and playing on the singles court this has been some of the best tennis I’ve played, some of my levels were even higher than last year so a lot of good things to take into next season,” added Reid.

Even the great Esther Vergeer found the women’s singles a difficult one to call but she emphasised that her fellow countrywoman would have to be at her best to beat the super consistent Yui Kamiji, whom she said was like a wall. Kamiji was aiming to win the Masters title for a second time; in each of its other 23 seasons it’s been won by the Dutch and de Groot happily maintained the tradition.

It was de Groot’s first Masters title, just as Wimbledon was her first Grand Slam title this year. The retirement of the Rio Paralympic double gold medallist and fellow Dutchwoman, Jiske Griffioen, has heaped a lot of responsibility on to de Groot’s slender shoulders but she has proved able to carry the load.

She held a 4-1 lead in both the first set and the second but each time saw it chipped away by the super consistent little Japanese, who actually took a 5-4 lead in the first set. However, de Groot kept her nerve and eventually pulled through 75 64.

Next on her list of targets will be Kamiji’s No. 1 ranking and with few points to defend early in the season the Dutch girl is well placed to overtake her rival. Whether this turns into one of the sport’s rivalries remains to be seen. At the moment Kamiji holds an 11-4 advantage but one senses that that discrepancy is about to change.

There is not much left for the 43-year-old Wagner to achieve in this sport. The last couple of weeks have seen him win his tenth UNIQLO Wheelchair Doubles Masters title and now his tenth NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters singles title with a 61 62 demolition of Andy Lapthorne.

A multiple Grand Slam champion, he now gains World Champion status too.

The Briton had been hoping to usurp Wagner as No. 1 to end the year in the top spot for the first time but he never came close to threatening the American and said he was now considering his future in the sport.

Wagner will hope he continues to play because he feeds on a challenge, which he has done right through his career, ever since he broke his back playing Frisbee in the surf off Redondo Beach, California as a young man.

“I feel great, I’m excited. I’ve said all week that no one comes here to take second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth. We all come here to take first place. There can only be one and I’m really excited that it’s me,” said Wagner, who only dropped the opening game of the first set.

Having played down the possibilities and significance of achieving a tenth title throughout the five days of competition in Loughborough, Wagner is rightfully proud of chalking up double digits just a week after partnering fellow American Nick Taylor to a tenth Doubles Masters title.

“It’s pretty surreal, actually. I don’t know if I’d even thought that was possible when I first started playing wheelchair tennis. But it’s something that I’m very proud of and it’s something that I’ll always have and it’ll never be taken from me.”