An ill Nick Kyrgios finally had his belated – and mostly positive – first hit on Kooyong's grass on Wednesday afternoon, but not before his extended absence stoked the fires of an intriguing possibility: could the recently-retired Lleyton Hewitt be on the verge of a comeback?
As the Australians consider their selection options before Thursday's 9am deadline, Hewitt is effectively on standby to end his five-week retirement if he is required to combine his new captaincy duties with an unscheduled playing role against the US in the first round tie starting on Friday.
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Kyrgios at first practice session
Australian player has his first hit on the grass courts, bidding to prove his fitness ahead of Australia's Davis Cup tie against the United States, after battling a mystery virus picked up in Dubai last week.
Coach Jason Stoltenberg was unable to declare Kyrgios a certain starter in the four-man Australian team, despite what he acknowledged was a better-than-expected practice session. "We'll have to see now, but he hit really well and he seems good," Stoltenberg said after Kyrgios safely negotiated about 30 minutes on court with hitting partner Matt Reid. A double-figure squadron of officials, medical and support staff consulted Kyrgios during several lengthy rest breaks, while rival captain Jim Courier watched with interest from the clubhouse balcony.
The 20-year-old's mother, Nill, said her son had not picked up a racquet since last week's Dubai semi-final against Stan Wawrinka, from which he retired with the combination of the energy-sapping virus and back/hip problems. After arriving from Canberra on Wednesday morning, he missed the Australians' main practice session at midday – thus fuelling the speculation of a Hewitt comeback – but struck the ball well during the mid-afternoon cameo.
"It's hard to get him here but being around the boys (helps)," said Nill Kyrgios, whose son had earlier left the court without comment. "I think it's going to be a discussion, so I can't say (if he'll play). I thought he hit pretty well, actually.
"He did catch a terrible virus in Dubai before the semi-finals; he played with the virus in the semi-finals… When you're sick, you're sick. Even Nick can get sick."
Yet, given his abbreviated grasscourt preparation, and slightly subdued demeanour, there must still be the temptation to include the vastly-experienced Hewitt, a former Wimbledon champion, as insurance. Bernard Tomic is certain to play on the opening day against Jack Sock, with Sam Groth the current singles back-up and John Peers the nominated doubles specialist.
Certainly the Americans — Courier, John Isner, Sock and the Bryan twins — consider Hewitt's participation a possibility, five weeks after it was thought he had played his last tournament match. "We won't be surprised," Bob Bryan said. "I mean, Lleyton's put in a lot of work this week. Our practice courts are right next to theirs and he's been playing a lot of singles, been playing doubles, so we're gonna be ready for anything. But if he plays for Australia it won't be a bad choice for the Aussies. The guy's a legend and he'll step up just fine."
Before Kyrgios finally made it onto the court, Stoltenberg did not rule out a Hewitt comeback. "I don't know, actually," the coach said when asked about Hewitt's role after the 35-year-old had sparred with Tomic. "He's enjoyed the hitting, though. He thought he was retired and he's hitting more than these guys. It's probably the first time a captain's had to get out and prepare as if he may play.
"He's a great team man and he'll do whatever he needs to do, whether that's playing or sitting on the side. We don't expect he'll play. But we'll have to wait and see in the next 24 hours."
Has it been discussed? "Oh not, really," Stoltenberg said. "Hasn't really come up, but he's been hitting a lot of balls, so he's a thinker, and he thinks ahead and he's pretty organised. So I'd say in his mind he's just covering all his bases."
Groth, who has shared a court with his former Davis Cup doubles partner several times in the lead-up, can vouch for Hewitt's readiness. "Stock standard Lleyton, isn't it?" Groth said. "He's out there doing two-on-ones, hitting as many balls as he can, and for him it's probably a different role than most captains play.
"I don't think you see many captains hitting as many balls as him, but I think he actually enjoys being a part of that as well. The guy got to No.1 in the world and won Wimbledon; he can definitely hit a ball on a grass court."