Hewitt Is at Top of His Game

Times Staff Writer

The world's top-ranked men's tennis player kept that distinction Friday in the way he knows best, scampering around like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter. And when Lleyton Hewitt was done with young American Robbie Ginepri in the quarterfinals of the Pacific Life Open, having posted a routine 6-4, 6-2 victory, he looked as if he could scoot up a few more trees.

The style of the era in men's tennis is baseline bashing, and until Pete Sampras comes back, cracks a big serve and follows it to the net, Hewitt is what men's tennis has as its benchmark, followed closely by Andre Agassi.

Had Hewitt not gotten through to the semifinals here, Agassi would have taken over as No. 1. That is based on a complicated system understood by, oh, probably 17 people worldwide. Part of it involves comparative results from the same event year-to-year. Hewitt won at the Indian Wells Garden last year and so he had to defend 100 points -- 95 more than Agassi, who lost in the first round last year -- to stay No. 1, a spot he has held since Nov. 19, 2001. By flicking away Ginepri like a fly on his sleeve, Hewitt stayed ahead of Agassi and also put himself in fine position for a spot in Sunday morning's final.

His semifinal opponent will be veteran Vince Spadea, who took out a fellow American qualifier, Brian Vahaly, almost as easily as Hewitt beat Ginepri. Spadea's 6-3, 6-2 victory continued one of the best runs of his career. He started by outlasting Michael Joyce in a qualifying match Saturday night and now has won six matches in seven days, worth $102,500 even if the run ends against Hewitt.

"This is probably the most matches I've won in a row, maybe ever," said Spadea, 28, who holds the ATP tour record for consecutive losses, 21 in 1999 and 2000.

Spadea is one of the five Americans who'd made the quarterfinals here. He took out Vahaly, Hewitt took out Ginepri and German late-bloomer Rainer Schuettler eliminated a third, hard-serving Andy Roddick, who went quickly, 6-3, 6-2.

Schuettler, 26, who said he was inspired to get into tennis by watching a young Boris Becker win at Wimbledon for the first time in 1985, followed his Australian Open final berth -- he lost to Agassi -- with the semifinal berth here from his 15th-seeded spot.

Schuettler will play Gustavo Kuerten, who defeated James Blake, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, in Friday's night quarterfinal. Kuerten, of Brazil, won the final seven games and enjoyed it immensely.

"I didn't want the match to finish," he said. "Just want to keep playing. Was so enjoyable on the court, I could be playing there for a few more hours."

Hewitt, 22, has a 16-4 record in this tournament. He beat Tim Henman of England in last year's final and lost a tough semifinal to Agassi in 2001.

But this year, with the exception of a four-set loss to Younes El Aynaoui of Morocco in the Australian Open, he has been unbeatable, even though he resists that label. "I don't think anyone's unbeatable," he said. "I think you can leave that to Tiger."

Hewitt, who won the title last week at Scottsdale, Ariz., said the issue of remaining No. 1 meant little to him, but then most tennis players say that, proclaiming that they are driven only by Grand Slam victories.

"It's nice, but you're going to lose it some week," Hewitt said. "I didn't come to Indian Wells to try and hold onto my No. 1 ranking. I came here to win the tournament."

For the second time, Schuettler caught Roddick at an ideal time; ideal, that is, for Schuettler.

He beat Roddick in the semifinals of the Australian the round after Roddick had battled El Aynaoui for five hours. Roddick played that match with a wrist injury that would idle him for about a month and cost him a spot on the U.S. Davis Cup team. Friday, Schuettler got Roddick about 14 hours after Roddick had won a hard-hitting, tense, third-set tiebreaker against France's Sebastien Grosjean.

Roddick said Schuettler "played a lot better than me," but admitted he was troubled by a sore ankle and knee.

For Roddick, the highlight of a match in which he made 28 unforced errors was a 147-mph serve that aced Schuettler and was within a whisker of the tour record, 149, set here in 1998 by England's Greg Rusedski.

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