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Steve Flink: Hewitt Ever the Warrior

1/23/2010 2:00:00 PM

  by Steve Flink

Lleyton Hewitt has been a central figure in Australian tennis for a remarkably long time. He will be 29 in a month, and he is in the twilight of an excellent career. This is his thirteenth year as a professional, and what a consummate pro he has been. Over the past eleven years, he has only once finished a season outside the top 25 in the world, and that was when he had hip surgery in 2008 and fell to No. 67. When this indomitable competitor was at his zenith, he finished two years in a row as the single best tennis player in the world back in 2001 and 2002. He captured the U.S. Open in 2001 with an immaculate final round display, dismantling Pete Sampras 7-6, 6-1, 6-1 to garner that crown. The following year, he established himself on an even larger scale by ruling on the lawns at the All England Club, taking apart  David Nalbandian in a straight set final to win the world’s most prestigious title at Wimbledon.

Life has never been quite the same for this unshakable fellow ever since. He slipped to No. 17 in the world at the end of 2003, spent the next two years among the top five, but then retreated again to a lesser status as time took its toll. Across the years, Hewitt lost some of his foot speed, no longer covering the court with his old alacrity. His agility had been one of his most vaunted weapons. Although his quickness was only slightly diminished, the difference that made in his dealings on the court was substantial. But Hewitt has kept working diligently at his craft, and has remained formidable because he retains the mentality of a champion. That is an admirable trait, and it is why he is still worth watching. The bottom line is this: Lleyton Hewitt has never stopped believing in Lleyton Hewitt.

At this Australian Open, Hewitt has had an easy path to the round of 16. Seeded 22nd, he swept past Ricardo Hocevar in a straight set, first round match. He cast aside the American left-hander Donald Young in straight sets. And then he accounted for an ailing Marcos Baghdatis in his third round contest. Hewitt was ahead 6-0, 4-2 when the 2006 Australian Open finalist had to retire with an injured shoulder. Now Hewitt finds himself right where he wants to be, taking on Roger Federer in the round of 16, with the Australian fans cheering him on so unabashedly that it will feel like old times for one of the game’s great warriors.

Hewitt and Federer have met on 23 occasions since their personal series commenced in 1999. Over the first five years of the rivalry, Hewitt very much held the upper hand. He stopped Federer seven out of nine times in that stretch. Since then, Federer has been unstoppable against his Australian adversary, collecting 14 victories in a row. That streak began in 2004 at the Australian Open, when Federer came from behind to oust Hewitt in a four set skirmish that also took place in the round of 16. Of the 14 consecutive triumphs he has recorded over Hewitt, no less than seven have occurred at the four major events. In that span, he has overcome Hewitt once in Melbourne and three times at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Those numbers are irrefutable evidence that Hewitt faces a daunting task as he approaches this upcoming appointment with Federer at the Australian Open. Federer has so much virtuosity that it seems as if at any given moment--- whenever the stakes are highest--- he can turn up the volume of his talent and play the kind of sweepingly beautiful tennis that will be unanswerable by the unwavering yet outclassed Hewitt. Hewitt is a workhorse who gives very little away. He will counter Federer’s inspiration with his own intensity and strategic acumen. The depth and persistence of his ground strokes will cause Federer some problems, and there will be times when Federer will run into rough stretches as Hewitt peppers his backhand methodically. Yet Federer will go on his own glorious shot making sprees, making his opponent look helpless as he paints the lines with his finest colors.

And yet, I have a feeling this match will be a bit different from many of the previous showdowns between these two extraordinary players. They have had some hard fought battles since 2007. In Cincinnati that summer on hard courts, Hewitt took Federer all the way into a final set tie-break. He stood toe to toe with the Swiss maestro from the back of the court, and played a first rate match. But in the tie-break, Hewitt made a rash of horrendous mistakes. Uncharacteristically, he virtually gave that tie-break away, losing the sequence 7-1 with some surprising ineptitude down the stretch. After losing his next two meetings with Federer in straight sets, Hewitt played another impressive match last year on Arthur Ashe Stadium against the world No. 1 in the third round of the U.S. Open. He won the first set, lost the second, and had some big chances in the third before bowing 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.

They have not collided since, but there could not be a better setting for Hewitt to make a go of it. The Australian fans will be ignited, hoping he can remind everyone now of how great he was once, cheering him on vociferously, encouraging their man in every way they can as he confronts the world No. 1. To be sure, Federer will not be passive in his response. He will accept the challenge, and will be looking to silence the crowd and subdue Hewitt with a performance of the highest order. Federer is fundamentally unflappable, an imperturbable individual with a will to win that is second to none, a champion through and through who will enjoy dealing with adverse circumstances and finding a way to seize control of the proceedings.

Having said that, I still envision a great match unfolding. Hewitt recognizes his plight for what it is. He knows that as he closes in on the age of 29 he can’t expect too many more opportunities like this one. This is going to be his kind of highly charged atmosphere, a chance for him to perform with the kind of all out intensity he has not felt for a very long time, a moment when he can inspire a nation with his capacity to compete under pressure against the redoubtable Federer.

I am looking forward to watching this encounter across the airwaves. Lleyton Hewitt will inevitably end up some day at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He has accomplished immensely across his career, has played the game with a spirit and unflagging outlook that few could match, has been an enduring player who believes in himself no matter how many skeptics have lined up against him. I don’t expect him to beat Federer, but I am convinced he can take a set and possibly stretch the contest into the full five sets. It would be fitting if Hewitt made Federer travel into that dangerous territory. He deserves one more brief moment in the bright sun of his profession, and this just might be it. 

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