In the mind’s eye of most Australians, Lleyton Hewitt will likely forever be camped in the left corner of the tennis court taking his racquet back with a stiff-armed, mechanical motion and resolutely launching shot after shot over the net.
Those shots rarely overwhelm with the concussive finality of a Roger Federer or a Juan Martin del Potro, but “Rusty” is there for the long haul, and his opponents understand they are facing not only a brick wall but also an iron will.
That will has helped him reincarnate himself again after five surgeries (hip, foot, toe) over the past four years, and he enters his 17th Australian Open mercifully free of the ailments that have diminished him in recent times.
During the draw ceremony last Friday, Channel Seven’s Bruce McAvaney expressed the thoughts of many when he mused, “17 Australian Opens and he’s 31 – it doesn’t really add up, does it?”
It only adds up because Hewitt played his first at 15 in 1997 and has not missed a single one since.
On Monday night on centre court at Rod Laver Arena, where he finished as the 2005 runner-up to Marat Safin in his only final, Hewitt faces Janko Tipsarevic.
The Serb, 28, has finished in the top 10 the past two years and credits his relatively late career success to living and breathing his profession 24/7. “I used to think it was enough to just practice five or six hours a day,” he explained last week before the AAMI Classic at Kooyong.
The deep-thinking Tipsarevic, with a Dostoevsky quote “beauty will save the world” tattooed on his left arm, has a sound, varied game style but no truly dominant weapon that can overpower Hewitt. Their 3-1 head-to-head in Hewitt’s favour is not a very useful reference because their last meeting was in Sydney more than four years ago.
The afternoon session features defending champion Novak Djokovic, who says about the season-opening Grand Slam, “you come here fresh, you’re motivated and inspired to play some good tennis.” His opponent, Paul-Henri Mathieu, 31, missed all of 2011 after surgery on a career-threatening knee injury and made a remarkable comeback from no ranking at all to No. 59 in 2012.
Also in action in the afternoon, after Maria Sharapova debuts against fellow big-hitting Russian Olga Puchkova, is Samantha Stosur, the Australian burdened by losses in her last five matches on home soil. Ankle surgery in November did not help a 0-2 start to her 2013 Australian summer campaign, but she feels she’s progressing. The ninth seed is confident she can avenge a loss to Kai-Chen Chang last October in Osaka in her opening match at Melbourne Park.
An encouraging performance in a first-round 6-3 6-7(9) 6-4 exit to crafty Jie Zheng in Sydney last week had Stosur saying “sometimes things in tennis can change very quickly.”
Ironically, a win against Chang could see her play Zheng in the second round.
TOM’S INTREPID TIPS
Hewitt def. Tipsarevic in five: For the second year in a row Hewitt rises to the occasion in Rod Laver Arena, outdueling the classy Serb in five debilitating sets.
Djokovic def. Mathieu in three: Mathieu’s long road back from an almost catastrophic knee injury is a real tear-jerker, but Nole shows no mercy.
Stosur def. Chang in two: Sam proves she can handle the home-court pressure, asserting her superiority over the No. 86-ranked, 22-year-old from Chinese Taipei.
Sharapova def. Puchkova in two: In a match-up of two American-residents and 25-year-old Russians, the one way more familiar with the big stage prevails.
Ivanovic def. Czink in three: If she’s over the disappointment of Hopman Cup, Ana should get by Czink even if wins don’t come easily for her these days.