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Steve Flink: Living on Borrowed Time

1/19/2012 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The old adage about “living on borrowed time” can sometimes seem off key, like a bad cliché. But the expression fits ageing athletes like Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick awfully well. Here are two men who resided in the forefront of the game back in their respective heydays. Hewitt captured his first ATP World Tour event on the hard courts of Adelaide in 1998, when he was still 16. He burst into the world’s top ten in 2000, captured the U.S. Open the following year, and won Wimbledon in 2002. He concluded both 2001 and 2002 as the No. 1 ranked player in the world.

Consider Roddick. In his first full year as a professional, he soared to No. 14 in the world at the age of 19 in 2001, winning 42 of 58 matches that season. Two years later, Roddick had the landmark season of his illustrious career, securing the U.S. Open crown, finishing that year at No. 1 in the world.

Unbeknownst to either Hewitt or Roddick, they have never again celebrated success on the same lofty level, and yet they have remained stationed near the top of the sport’s ladder. They have come to be recognized as two of the game’s greatest fighters. Roddick-currently ranked No. 16—would end nine consecutive years among the world’s top ten, finishing that admirable run in 2010.  Exploiting his magnificent first and second serves to the hilt, he would advance to four more major finals during some very good years, but every time he got there a man named Federer was standing in the way. The Swiss toppled the American in title round matches in 2004 and 2005 at Wimbledon, at the 2006 U.S. Open, and once more in an epic five set clash at Wimbledon in 2009. Roddick had won the U.S. Open at 21, but despite all of his subsequent attempts to add luster to his record, he has not been the last man standing at a major again.

As for Hewitt, the storyline is similar. He got to the final of the U.S. Open in 2004, losing emphatically to a top of the line Federer. The following year, after Federer had lost a spectacular five set encounter to Marat Safin in the semifinals of the Australian Open, Hewitt seemed poised to collect another Grand Slam title. He took the first set 6-1 from a discombobulated Safin, but thereafter the Russian composed himself, found his range off the ground, served mightily, and essentially blew the Australian off the court in four sets.

Hewitt was a semifinalist at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open as well in 2005, but that was his last great year. As he recalled the other day, he endured five surgeries in a four year stretch recently, including foot surgery last March. While he had played 98 matches in his 2001 campaign, he has seldom exceeded 50 matches in a year since then. In 2011, the Australian warrior finished the season with a match record of nine wins against eleven losses.

And yet, there he was on Thursday in Melbourne, competing in a record 16th Australian Open in a row, facing none other than Roddick in the second round. They had met 13 times previously through their careers, with Roddick having collected six victories in a row to take a 7-6 lead in the series. Four of those meetings had taken place at the majors. On his way to his first Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows in 2001, Hewitt had edged Roddick 6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the quarterfinals under the lights in New York. Their next collision at a Grand Slam event was in the semifinals of the 2005 Australian Open, with Hewitt the victor in four sets. But Roddick had won their next two clashes at the majors, toppling Hewitt in a straight set quarterfinal at the 2006 U.S. Open, and a five set quarterfinal contest at Wimbledon in 2009.

Because he has been unfit to play regularly these last few years, Hewitt has dropped to No. 181 in the world, yet he remains indefatigable, enterprising, and industrious. Hewitt could have left the sport proudly and contentedly a good while ago, but he seems to have a limitless supply of resilience, and a boundless capacity to put himself on the line and compete with an intensity few of his peers have matched across the years. Roddick is not quite the competitor that Hewitt has always been, but he is not far behind in that department. The American has had his share of injuries and illnesses over the past couple of years, but is convinced he can make a return to the elite top ten.

That is why his match with Hewitt this time around in Melbourne was one he valued so highly. In the nine majors he has played since his gallant final round showing at Wimbledon in 2009, Roddick had only twice reached the quarterfinals. Until and unless he can remedy that disturbing pattern, he will not put himself in a position to make it back to the top ten.

In any event, Roddick made an auspicious start in his battle with Hewitt on Rod Laver Arena last night. Serving rhythmically, potently and with good variation, he took control of the match in the first set. With Hewitt serving at 2-3, Roddick took advantage of a loss of concentration and intensity from Hewitt. The Australian was serving at 40-15, but he allowed Roddick back to deuce. Roddick then laced a forehand down the line for a winner to reach break point, and proceeded to outfox Hewitt in a 21 stroke baseline exchange. Hewitt released an errant forehand down the line, and Roddick was ahead 4-2. He held at 30 for 5-2 with an ace down the T, and two games later served out the set by connecting with five of six first serves, holding at 30 to win a 6-3 set in 39 minutes.

The American must have liked his chances at that juncture, but Hewitt soon turned up the volume of his intensity and raised his game in the process. Hewitt broke Roddick for the first time to move ahead 2-0 in the second set. The Australian gladiator made an astounding slice backhand winner down the line off a low, awkward ball to reach break point, and then Roddick missed off the forehand. The momentum had clearly shifted. But it was in the third game that Roddick’s problems were compounded. Hewitt hit an inside-out backhand behind Roddick, who tried to change directions and recover to hit a forehand. But he pulled his right hamstring badly. Hewitt held on easily at 15 for 3-0. Roddick called for the trainer, left the court briefly for treatment, and then returned. He must have known that he was not going to win this tennis match in his compromised condition.

In his last three service games of the second set, Hewitt took 12 of 13 points, cleverly moving Roddick from side to side, exposing the American’s decidedly reduced mobility. The set belonged to the Australian, 6-3. It was one set all. With Roddick serving in the opening game of the third set, he drifted to break point down. Hewitt—ever the opportunist, ruthless in the best possible way—took his two-hander from the middle of the court and sent it inside-out to Roddick’s forehand side. Roddick did not chase that shot because the hamstring was restricting his range of movement considerably.

It seemed as if the American might retire at any time, but Roddick managed to break back quickly for 1-1 with a clean down the line winner off the forehand. He was taking sensible risks off the ground, going for winners without being reckless, giving himself a chance to stay in the match. But Hewitt was unswerving. With Roddick serving at 2-2, the Australian counter-attacked brilliantly. Roddick had approached behind a knifing backhand slice, but Hewitt produced one of his patented forehand passing shots down the line into an open space. He moved to 4-2.

With Roddick serving to save the set at 3-5, he somehow held on from 15-40, forcing Hewitt to serve out the set in the tenth game. An obstinate Roddick gave himself one last look at optimism. He got to 0-40 with a flat two-handed backhand winner down the line and a running forehand winner crosscourt. But Hewitt responded boldly with two aces and an inside-out forehand winner. Another inside-out forehand winner gave the Australian set point, and he took that when his backhand slice bounded off the net cord twice before dribbling over for a winner, and a two sets to one lead.

Roddick understandably elected to retire, and Hewitt came away with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory. He probably could have played one more respectable set, but a triumph was almost out of the question. He could well have exacerbated the injury. In the end, Roddick made the right decision to surrender. And so his career series with Hewitt is now locked at 7-7. Hewitt, of course, moves on to a third round confrontation against the rapidly emerging Milos Raonic, the No. 23 seed from Canada and one of the sport’s most explosive and exhilarating performers. Perhaps Hewitt will put all of his backcourt guile to maximum use. He will undoubtedly make his share of sparkling service returns, and test the patience and mental toughness of the young Canadian. He will work his young adversary exceedingly hard. Yet I believe Raonic will prevail in that contest. Even if Hewitt survives his skirmish with Raonic, he is not going to stop Novak Djokovic in the following round.

This may well have been the last time Roddick and Hewitt play a match of any lasting consequence. The feeling grows that this will be Hewitt’s final year. He will be 31 in February, and even he can’t accept the punishment his body has taken for much longer. As for Roddick, if he can’t find a way to prevent the nagging injuries he has confronted the last few years, if he needs to constantly keep fighting his way back from bad health or a body that is no longer what it once was, he will have to consider retirement at the end of this year as well.

Meanwhile, it is fascinating to compare these two former world No. 1 players as they move toward the end of their competitive days. Roddick, of course, has relied heavily on the excellence of his serve, which has been one of the biggest and best of his era. Hewitt’s game been built differently; his return of serve has been one of the finest in modern times, and his uncanny skills from the baseline and his extraordinary passing shots have defined his greatness.  Roddick has garnered 30 career ATP World Tour titles, while Hewitt has won 28. But, more importantly, Hewitt has taken two majors, while Roddick has secured only one. Roddick has a career match record of 590-198, while Hewitt is 553-205. Hewitt is 30 and Roddick is 29. But one other number separates these two men significantly: Hewitt is 30-18 in career five set matches while Roddick is only 13-16. That is a telling statistic.

The view here is that both men will one day be inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Hewitt—by virtue of having won the sport’s two most important titles, leading Australia to two Davis Cup triumphs, and finishing two years in a row at No. 1 in the world--- is a virtual lock.  Yet even if Roddick never wins another major—which will almost surely be the case—  he should be voted into the sport’s shrine in my view because he did end one year at No. 1, along with capturing the U.S. Open, and propelling his nation to victory in the Davis Cup at the end of 2007.  Had Roddick not bungled that backhand volley at 6-5 in the second set tie-break against Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final when he should have taken a two set to love lead, his career would have been altered irrevocably.

And yet—no matter how much the odds are against him—the highly charged Roddick will not stop chasing that elusive second major crown, and Hewitt will not let anyone tell him when he should step aside. It was very unfortunate for both the players and the sport’s followers that the Hewitt-Roddick 2012 Australian Open battle was abbreviated. These two stalwart competitors deserved the chance to stretch their contest into something of more lasting value. But the fact remains that this is a moment when we should all pause to honor both men for the integrity and steadfastness they have displayed all across their careers. They are indeed living on borrowed time, but the hope here is that they will be able to shine at a few more times of consequence before they put their rackets down for good.