As Lleyton Hewitt prepares to play in his 18th Australian Open, does the former world No.1 have it in his feet, legs and arms to make one more fairytale run? Wimbledon.com wonders...
You don't have to be part of Lleyton Hewitt's cheer-squad, the Fanatics, to celebrate the 32-year-old's refusal to submit to mellow middle age. Every Hewitt sneer and growl at Melbourne Park will be welcomed by those who don't believe that tennis players in their thirties are obliged to play out the final years of their careers as soft, cuddly versions of their old gnarly selves.
This year's Australian Open, which begins on Monday, will be Hewitt's eighteenth consecutive appearance at his home Grand Slam - his first came a couple of tennis generations ago, in 1997, when he lost in the opening round to Spain's Sergei Bruguera - and still he talks about "doing some damage to the serious players". Doubtless his lust for competition next week will be the same as when he was a teenager; for as long as he is hustling on a baseline he is going to retain that will to win which borders on the frightening. All the injuries and operations aren't going to change him.
It was almost ten years ago, in 2005, that Hewitt was a finalist at the Australian Open, but he was rightly encouraged by the tennis he played to defeat Roger Federer in last week's Brisbane final, in a meeting of thirty-something former Wimbledon champions that confirmed that your tennis life doesn't end in your twenties. Federer has a new racket and a new coach (Stefan Edberg); Hewitt still has the same old bloody-minded approach to tennis, and it's an approach that has served him well over the years. This was Hewitt's first title since he defeated the same opponent in the 2010 final of a grass-court tournament in Halle, and his first in Australia for almost a decade. Now, after moving up 17 places in the rankings to No.43, and jumping above Bernard Tomic, he will go into the Melbourne slam as the Australian No.1, an achievement which Pat Cash described as inspirational. He then went and pushed Andy Murray to two tie-break sets in Kooyong. An exhibition, admittedly. But executed with some battle.
Since Hewitt won't be seeded in Melbourne, he is pitted against 24th seed Italian Andreas Seppi, and you can be sure that Rafael Nadal will be wary of Hewitt lingering in his quarter. What can Hewitt realistically achieve in Melbourne? You have to go back to 1976, when Mark Edmondson was ranked outside the top 200, and prepared for the tournament by cleaning windows at a hospital, and playing on "the riff-raff circuit", for Australia's last men's champion. And not even those who have been soaking up too much Australian sun and booze are seriously suggesting that Hewitt can join Edmondson in the club of unlikely Aussie champions Down Under. But it's within Hewitt's power to trouble and possibly take down one of the big names - especially if they meet in the first or second round - and to make the second week. More than that, Hewitt will be demonstrating that those who have been in the tennis stratosphere - who have won Grand Slams, and held the world No 1 ranking - don't have to retire, or turn soft, just because they are no longer regarded as contenders for the biggest prizes. Hewitt has chosen the hustle over retirement, and he should be applauded for that.
Wimbledon.com will be on the ground in Melbourne throughout the Australian Open. Check back daily for our take on each day's play...
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