Lleyton - on canvas or primed for an upset?
IN THE days before the Australian Open, Samantha Stosur was the only home-grown US Open champion being considered as a possible, much less probable, ingredient in the second Monday mix. Instead, it is all about the 2001 winner, Lleyton Hewitt, whose best days are well past him, even if the determination to enjoy another big night is not.
There have been a couple already during this grand slam: Thursday's ageing-favourites tango with Andy Roddick, who was considerate enough to head home early and spare his old foe anything too late or taxing; then Saturday's soiree with young Canadian Milos Raonic - who matched Hewitt early but, in the end, could not keep up the pace.
Tonight's occasion will be vastly different, of course, for the pace is exactly what Novak Djokovic has been setting since he swept through this tournament 12 months ago, and all but one of his past 23 grand slam matches. Indeed, the Serb has had Hewitt's measure in each of their four ATP matches since the Australian won the first, back in 2006, and even those who tipped the 30-year-old wildcard against Raonic cannot imagine such a happy ending here.
Lleyton Hewitt celebrates his victory over Milos Raonic. Photo: Pat Scala
''I won't be as bold as to pick Lleyton this time, but he will believe he can match up - don't worry,'' said Paul McNamee. ''Shot for shot. He'll feed off Novak's pace, he'll be competitive and it will be a great match to watch, but at the end of the day you must go with Novak.''
Yet the fact that it is even happening is a major surprise, for it was only a few weeks ago that Hopman Cup tournament director McNamee greeted a physically compromised Hewitt arriving for the mixed teams event in Perth, the father-of-three still troubled by the toe problem that kept him to 20 matches last season, as his ranking dropped to 181st.
''He was always motivated but his body wasn't right, and he came to Perth in great difficulty and did really well,'' McNamee said. ''He's gradually been able to manage his way through it, and I can honestly say [against Raonic], and the day before in the doubles, was the best he's moved in the whole period. So he's clearly managing it very well, and I believe it took a lot of experimentation to get the formula right - how much treatment, what type of treatment, when.''
Novak Djokovic. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
Hewitt admitted after his 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 defeat of Raonic that only those in his inner circle, and perhaps his Davis Cup teammates, realise what he has endured in the past year.
Then came the draw for his 16th Open.
The underrated Cedrik-Marcel Stebe in the first round. Then power-servers Roddick and Raonic. And, remarkably, still going.
''A couple of months ago, I didn't know if I'd be able to play,'' Hewitt said.
''Obviously I didn't play much tennis last year. I always wanted to play this tournament.
''I've done a lot of hard work.
''It's only my close friends and team that know what we've done to get here. Yeah, that's probably why it's very satisfying.
''I'll prepare as well as possible again. I'll do all the right things. [Djokovic] is the No.1 player in the world for a reason at the moment. I'm going to enjoy going out there and having a crack.
''I don't think a lot of people would have given me a lot of hope when the draw came out to be in the fourth round going into the second week.
''I've done everything right so far, laid it all out on the line.''
If Djokovic believes Hewitt is playing his best tennis in two years - and, indeed, faced him in the fourth round of 2010 Wimbledon, when the now-No.1 was having issues with his serve, and ongoing dramas with his breathing - then it was his old-stager's wily experience that was too much for Raonic. Who knew it.
''He's a very smart player. He knows how to win,'' said Raonic, 21. ''When he smells a little bit of weakness, he just really pounces on it and he knows how to expose it. He's not the type of person that will give you really anything. Doesn't matter how hurt he's been, how old he is, he's as much of a competitor as he ever was. He got me with that.''
As Wally Masur suggested in his TV analyst's role yesterday, it is also as if the two-time major winner ''is not quite ready to hand over the baton just yet to the younger Bernard Tomic''.
''This is his 16th Australian Open. He wants to make a mark, he knows it could be his last and he's desperate for a big one,'' Masur said. The trouble is Djokovic, the impenetrable force.
''The issue with Djokovic is that it's very difficult to break him down,'' said former Davis Cup player and captain John Fitzgerald. ''His defence out of the backhand corner is as good as I've ever seen. No matter how well you hit the ball in there, it comes back with interest, and he doesn't miss from it, and his athleticism and speed are almost as good as I've seen, I reckon.
''I don't know how Lleyton's going to go. It depends on how he recovers, I guess, but he's saved a bit of petrol in the tank, hopefully.
''Lleyton can play with freedom. You could see the joy on his face last night, what this means to him. It's a great achievement. A great story.''