Sunday January 22nd, 2012

When Lleyton Hewitt and Kim Clijsters were engaged way-back-when, to many it seemed like an odd pairing. No way does match.com yoke these two. He was the combative No. 1, who relished the battle and compensated for an absence of height with oversized heart, spleen and guts.

She, on the other hand, was powerfully built, a charter member of the WTA power brigade, but also sweet enough to cause tooth decay. Her inability to summon contempt, to make enemies (real or imagined), to cultivate a Hewittian taste for combat kept expressing herself in big events.

Now, many years since their split, well, they don't seem so different. Here they are, both in the sunset years of their Hall of Fame careers -- both married and with kids -- fighting like hell, savoring what could be a farewell tour, using experience and guile to mask injury and age.

On Saturday, Hewitt fired up one for the memory banks, simply outbattling Milos Raonic in four sets. It was vintage Hewitt, taking a match he had little business taking. Raonic is younger, stronger, healthier, and higher-ranked -- a player whose career vectors are all headed in the right direction. Raonic, though, lacks Hewitt's experience and his war record.

So when Hewitt stared down Raonic at a changeover, the Canadian wasn't sure how to react. When Raonic found a groove, Hewitt adjusted speeds and meters and ruined the rhythm. When the big moments surfaced, Raonic wasn't quite sure how to answer the questions. Hewitt did.

Finally, after three hours of courageous play, Hewitt finished off the match. He promptly fell on his back and looked at the Melbourne sky. "I always liked him, his spirit of competition," said Rafael Nadal, who watched the match at the hotel. "He is an example for a lot of people to follow."

So is Clijsters. She is the defending champion here but her last 12 months have been shredded by injuries that caused her expulsion from the top 10. On Sunday it looked she had suffered more misfortune when she turned her left ankle at 3-3 in the first set against Li Na.

She agonized (as did fans who saw the replay) but taped it up and resumed playing. This was a major, she said, and they would have to wheel her off the court. So she soldiered on, shortening points and picking her spots. There was nothing sweet or congenial. This was a veteran battling. "Maybe with the adrenaline I could just fly through it," she said. "At some point you think, 'OK, I'm going to go for it.'"

Her mobility -- a cornerstone of her game -- badly compromised, Clijsters lost the first set and then faced four match points. She wasn't done battling. She hung in rallies, changed the pace and, benefitting from some weak-kneed play from her opponent, leveled the match. Sensing correctly that Li was in a world of emotional hurt, she jumped to a 5-1 third-set lead and served out what might have the best match of the first week, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4.

Again and again, both Hewitt and Clijsters have been asked -- sometimes more subtly than others -- "Why are you still out there?" This weekend, both gave eloquent answers.

I am still stunned by what happened to David Nalbandian during the Isner match. You say he was jobbed. I would go with robbed, but whatever. When players behave badly at a tournament, they are fined. What recourse do players have when they are clearly wronged during a tournament by those officiating? I read the ref subsequently admitted he was wrong. Instead, Nalbandian gets fined $8,000. Couldn't they at least give him a break on the fine? -- Kristine, Grand Rapids, Mich.

• It was just a really inept piece of officiating. And I suspect we haven't heard the last of it. Just to clarify: A) Isner is off the hook, an innocent bystander who even encouraged Nalbandian to challenge. B) Nalbandian threw the water (allegedly) at a tournament official, not at Kader Nouni. C) This supports Mary Carillo's contention that if replay exists, stop the "game show aspect" and the issuing "challenges" and simply use it to eliminate error.

"Players have an unwritten rule that you play the calls, you spare the chair embarrassment and that it all evens out." I don't buy that for a second. Funny how you "play the call" when it's in your favor. The guy getting jobbed doesn't seem to play the call very often. Like any other sport, a bad call goes your way, and you take it. -- Brandon, Wilkins

• I need Joel Drucker here for the precise details. But there's a great story about Jimmy Connors. At Wimbledon one year, early in the match an opponent got a bum call and Connors offered to concede the point. The opponent declined on these grounds: "I know you, Connors. When it's 4-4 in the fifth set, you're going to come looking for payback."

Dear Jon, I found your "there is a dearth of opportunities to see your favorite pro ... the top ATP stars may play only three events in the U.S. this entire year" argument in the recent mailbox quite annoying.

The United States has the largest share of ATP (and WTA) events of any nation, including 50 percent of the world's six most important two-week events. It has two separate seasons -- February-April and July-September -- in which tennis events are on show in a wide range of U.S. cities (sorry, "markets").

Twelve ATP events and 10 WTA events -- in addition to a slam -- is a tennis schedule for one country that most other continents (or hemispheres) would envy. If I've done my adding up correctly, it's three times as many tour events as the next nation in the list -- France.

For cities and countries without regular tournament stops (especially elite tournaments) I'd argue that the Davis and Fed Cup comps provide a better opportunity for fans all over the world to see elite tennis players competing in legitimate events against local champs. On the other hand, you regularly advocate a once-every-two-years Cup format because the tennis schedule is "too long." And now you seem to be justifying off-season hit-and-giggle cash bonanzas (in cities which already host a Slam!) as they somehow benefit the sport?? Sheesh ... -- GT, Canberra

• A) There is a world of difference between an exhibition -- with a set time, a set opponent, no ranking points at stake, no match the following day and, frankly, little incentive to win -- with a tournament. So I don't find it hypocritical that players complaining about the schedule play these one-night-only shows.

B) Who said anything about the United States? They play exos everywhere and the trend will only accelerate as tennis' nerve center continues moving toward Europe and Asia. Here's Victoria Azarenka the other day:

Q. Where did you do the work in the offseason?

VICTORIA AZARENKA: I went quite a few places actually. I've been to Monaco. I've been to Barbados. I played an exhibition there. I've been to Dubai. I played another exhibition in Thailand.

Quote: "The fact that she's No. 1 is really just a joke. I'll bet she'll be much happier, more relieved, when she falls out of No. 1 and the pressure's off. Can someone just win this title and become No. 1? Please? I can't take it any more." Shame on Pat McEnroe for making those DISRESPECTFUL comment about Caroline Wozniacki. He never reached the no.1 spot, if I remember it right. -- Nestor C. Quezon City, Philippines

• Go ahead and feel free to disagree with Patrick McEnroe here. But he is entitled to an opinion despite never reaching No. 1. This notion -- and athletes are the worst culprits -- that you've forfeited your right to an opinion because "you don't know what it's like" is a fallacy.

You can like or dislike a meal without being a Michelin-starred chef. You're allowed to dislike a movie even if you have no imdb credits to your name. Pat McEnroe can condemn Wozniacki even if his playing career paled in comparison to hers.

Is there a way to watch the Australian Open if I don't have ESPN? -- Cameron, N.Y.

• You willing to fly down here?

OK, I'm calling it now -- the first Olympic gold medal in mixed doubles will go to ... Belarus! -- Helen, Philadelphia

• Consider it called. I'll take Serbia.

Concerning the "ugly American" concern, maybe the issue is more of perception and press coverage. Roddick played his heart out and walked off the court to an ovation. I haven't seen any egregious outbursts from Williams since the U.S. Open (yet anyway). With the 24-hour news cycle and the pressure for many reporters who typically cover other sports to weigh in on tennis, stories of previous incidents seem ripe for filler material, especially when trying to fill a few more column inches after Fish's outburst. -- Paul, Wilmington, N.C.

• Fair point.

Can you plug Vania King's success at all in your next mailbag? The 22-year-old reached the third round of singles. She's also the No. 3 seed in doubles with two grand slams under her belt, yet would go unrecognized at most tournament sites. She's a true success story in American tennis. Vania's not physically assuming, yet has earned over $2 million in prize money in her short career so far. Props to Vania. -- Not Vania's Mom, Dallas, Texas

• Well, said, Ms. King, er, not Ms. King. As you walk the ground and see that the average WTA player has the requisite size to play in the WNBA, you come away with added respect for the undersized cohort that has to neutralize power and go into most matches knowing they will be the "dictatee" as it were.

Today's random encounter:

P. Crume, Louisville (who must be advised that we may have to borrow that great Pink Floyd reference): (Response to encounters with tennis greatness: When I was about eight or nine, I was in the audience at a pro tournament here in Louisville. Roscoe Tanner was one of the players; I don't remember the other. My stepfather, who had been a state-ranked tennis player in his youth (before he became a hippie), asked me if I thought he served harder than Tanner. Loyally and ignorantly I answered, 'Yes,' and he just laughed and laughed, kind of like that loopy chuckling on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

Five random observations from Sunday:

• Rafael Nadal effusively praised both Bernard Tomic and Milos Raonic, deeming them both future stars. One wonders: where would those two be if Nadal's two-year ranking was adopted?

• The player with the biggest entourage? My shekels are on Lleyton Hewitt. I've been to St. Patrick's Day parades with smaller crowds.

• Had a chance to sit down with Aggie Radwanska who was, in a word, delightful. For the first time in 17 years she is without her father as coach. She is in the quarters. Coincidence?

• Martina Navratilova playing on Margaret Court Arena was intriguing. But the television networks have clearly taken a don't-go-there attitude. As for the tennis, Martina Navratilova outperformed Martina Hingis.

• Favorite mixed doubles team: Kei Nishikori (b. 1989) and Kimiko Datr Krumm (b. 1970)

• GS of Calif.: Best comment yet from the AO -- Australian commentator for the Nadal-Lopez match, as Nadal tugs his shorts: "He should talk to Australia's Pat Rafter about comfy underwear." :-) How can you not love the Aussies!

• Press release: Tennis Channel will celebrate the remarkable career of Australia's greatest player -- Rod "The Rockhampton Rocket" Laver -- with Signature Series: Rod Laver during the 2012 Australian Open. The latest installment of the network's original Signature Series documentary line will debut Saturday, Jan. 21, at 9 p.m. ET. A complete schedule of episode airdates can be found on the channel's Web site at www.tennischannel.com/schedule.

• Quinn Sutherland has Lookalikes: Kukushkin looks like a Kazakh Steve Coogan (AKA Alan Partridge).

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