Tuesday January 20th, 2015

MELBOURNE -- Almost two decades ago, when Lleyton Hewitt was coming up, this story was going around the ATP locker room. Hewitt was prepping for a match and his coach offered this scouting report of the opponent: “His best shot is his forehand. Play to the other side.”

During the match, though, Hewitt gave the opponent a steady diet of forehands. He walked off the court a winner but the coach was irate. “What the hell were you doing?”

Hewitt explained that this wasn’t a severe case of coach-deafness. “I wanted to show him that even his best wasn’t enough to beat me.”

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Consider that a bit of foreshadowing for the next years. Hewitt was never the most powerful player. Or the biggest. Or the most artistic. He lacked the liquid strokes of Roger Federer, the muscular mas macho tennis of Rafael Nadal and the booming serve of just about everyone else. But he had loads of -- in the spirit of Hewitt, we can battle here -- fire? ego? guts? confidence? In short: his competitive will was unmatched.     

What did this mean? In the fat years, anyway, it meant that he won so many matches simply by embracing the competition more fiercely than the other guy. “He wanted it more,” is the stalest of sports clichés. But in Hewitt’s case, it fit. He literally, palpably desired victory more intensely than the opponent.

Unfortunately for Hewitt, this desire for combat extended off the court. He picked fights with other players, his agents, the ATP and the media. He was involved in enough lawsuits to, singlehandedly, keep the Australian plaintiff bar in business. He won lot of matches, but friends and allies were harder to come by.

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As Hewitt aged and his body began mounting a series of insurrections—and as first Federer and then Nadal and Novak Djokovic came along—he acted out of character. He retreated. He won majors in both 2001 and 2002, enough to scale the top of the rankings. Since then, he has been to finals of just two more majors, winning neither. And that was a full decade ago.

His fire, though, still raged. And instead of berating officials and thumping chest and picking fight with enemies real and imagined, he channeled it another ways. The competition became largely with himself, simply getting the best of out of his abilities and body. The battle was enough to sustain him, throwing down against someone else, matching will and skill, one winner, one loser.

Playing in his record 19th Australian Open, Hewitt took on Ze Zhang of China on Tuesday night in Melbourne. The performance was Hewitt, circa 2014, writ small. He played offense and defense. He pumped his fists. He won many points, but few of them were easy. He won the battle 6-3. 1-6, 6-0, 6-4. There was plenty to like. There was also that dog of a second set, a reminder that his best days are behind him. But he moved on and will have another bout, against Benjamin Becker, in 48 hours. 

Hewitt turns 34 in a few weeks. And while he has yet to make any announcement about his future, it’s hard to imagine that this won’t be his last full year on tour. So let the career retrospective begin. He will remembered as winner. As much for the last half of his career as the first.

Mailbag

Are there really two Joao Sousas in the draw?

-- @irobinwagner

Good eye! One is Souza, a Brazilian and the other is Sousa, Portuguese. If you were wondering, they can't meet until the final.

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Nadal shows veteran form in opening match in Melbourne

Would you find it less offensive for a player to wear a green shirt at a challenger, or do you reserve that type of distinction for trivial matters like match fixing?
-- @mrn10sdave

• Again, no one is condoning cheating at any level. My point is simply that the tennis administration needs to do a better job with messaging bad news.  Match-fixing at low-level challengers—unconscionable as it is—does not mean the Wimbledon final has been rigged. If you were a casual sports fan you wouldn't necessarily know this.

Assuming it is not already happening, how long before a top player hires a crackerjack sports statistician and uses the analytics to gain a 10% advantage in strategy on the rest of the field? I think it is a question of when, not if.  And once it's done, it will be standard for all top players, like having a coach, publicist, dietician, etc.

Sorry if the subject line sounds maudlin, but I always think of Jon Wertheim when I stroll through Wertheim Park in Amsterdam. I know that critics do not divulge personal information, but do you have an interesting ancestral narrative that goes back to the Netherlands? Just to show that your readers think of you as a real person and not a deus ex machina of tennis.
-- M Ng, Vancouver Canada

• You're very kind. To tell the family secret, my grandmother was Dutch. Prize to whoever can name the movie. For better or worse, I am German, through and through.

Shots, Miscellany:

Here are five notes from Tuesday’s action in Melbourne:

• Sloane Stephens officially qualifies for Superfund relief. She loses in the first round to Victoria Azarenka, winning just five games (the same number she won in the 2013 semifinal).

• Denis Kudla had match points against Feliciano Lopez. He couldn’t convert and lost 10-8.

• One unfortunate effect of the swollen purses at the majors. Players who are injured enter the draw, despite harboring no ambitions of winning. Without naming names, one coach ticked off five names of players who here simply to pick up a check. Among the five, none won a set.

• Keep an eye on French wild card Oceane Dodin, who beat Allison Riske round one and plays Karolina Pliskova on Wednesday.

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Daily Data Viz: ATP's returning friends, new blood on tour in 2015

• It was no coincidence that Sam Stosur played at 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday. Famously shaky in Australia, she played under low intensity light of an early session—and won handily.

•  Neil Grammer of Toronto: Other potential songs that pros can come onto court with are:
The Joker (for Novak Djokovic) - Steve Miller
‪What's "Love" Got to Do With It - Tina Turner
Big Mouth Strikes Again (for Bernard Tomic) - The Smiths
17 (Roger Federer) - Janis Ian
I Would Walk 500 Miles (for the Bryan Brothers) - The Proclaimers (also identical twins)
And, especially for sure first round losers at Grand Slams, Money - Pink Floyd

•  Tecnifibre is the new equipment sponsor of Jeremy Chardy and Donald Young

•  Sameer Mithal asks of ESPN: Can you get them to move the on-screen score so serve speed can be seen on TV?

• Here’s a changeover watch. Fiona O’Hehir is working for ESPN and Tennis Channel this week.

• Clint Swett of Sacramento has LLS: Italian tenor and Met Opera star Vittorio Grigolo and Roger Federer

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