MELBOURNE – The statute of limitations has long since lapsed, so now we can say it: Man, was it hard to like Lleyton Hewitt when he was the World No. 1. When he ruled the roost after Sampras and before Federer, he was all snarls and stares. Fueled by conflict, he picked fights with other players, coaches, administrators, agents, earth and assorted other planets—whatever could trigger tension. It wasn't a chip he had on his shoulder; it was a slab.
Again, that was more than a decade ago. For the second half of his first-ballot Hall of Fame career, it was equally hard to dislike him. At age 34, he entered his 20th Australian Open, his last tournament. As we write, Hewitt is, as ever, battling. His opponent is David Ferrer—a kindred spirit, another undersized player who has wrung everything from this sport. By the time you wake up and read this, Hewitt might well be a former player. (In singles, at least.)
Hewitt soldiered on because—as speed deserted him and time did its cruel dance—his love of competition only intensified. The less likely he was to win titles, the more he was nourished by simply standing across the net from someone and matching skill and will. There’s honor in simply being out there, trying to win three sets before the other guy.
As Hewitt aged, he mellowed. He realized that an opponent doesn't have to be an enemy; he can simply be an adversary. Hewitt became a mentor to younger players. In a way that was never the case when he was No. 1, he became part of the social fabric of the locker room. He is a savvy observer of the sport, destined for a long and successful commentary career.
You’re left with the unmistakable image of a professional, the very definition of an athlete you’re drawn to support. Sure, it’s too bad Hewitt wasn’t this easy to admire when he was at the top. But, you might say: better Lleyton never.
Five Thoughts on Day 4
• I write this in the late afternoon on Thursday, but after some sideways days, the tournament straightened out a bit today. Victoria Azarenka, Andy Murray, Garbine Muguruza and John Isner were among the players winning with ease.
• Fernando Verdasco played a career match against Rafael Nadal on Tuesday. He flamed out against Dudi Sela on Thursday. We can joke about the curse that befalls those who beat a great one. But it also says something about the levels players are required to reach when they play the great ones. When there’s a regression to the mean, you see a dropoff.
• Thursday was Nicolas Mahut’s 34th birthday. Alas the “celebration” entailed a loss to Gael Monfils.
• More reason to like Nick Kyrgios: in addition to singles, he is in doubles and mixed doubles as well.
• Lost in the folds: Kristyna Pliskova broke the WTA ace record on Wednesday night, firing off 31 untouchables. The bad news: she lost to Monica Puig.
Naomi Osaka….Just sayin'.
• Agree. A Japanese-Haitian with a wicked sense of humor and, oh yeah, serious game. We’re watching. One of the beauties of these events is mining these gems and discovering these players you’ve never much seen before. Another beauty: learning more about them. Check this out.
Once every few years I drop a line about the ageless (well, starting to age) Daniel Nestor. Nice to see him record his 1000th win this week. Too bad it wasn’t saved for the Aussie Open. Maybe a bit more press would have noted it. Anyways, always enjoy the Mailbag, Jon. Thanks.
—Steve, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada
• Absolutely. Nestor joins Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Roger Federer as the only player to recall 1,000 wins. Good on ‘em as they say here. He’s in the doubles with Radek Stepanek, his….88th career partner. I spoke with Nestor for a while on Thursday (huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan) and while obviously he’s closer to the end than the beginning, as long as he’s playing this level of tennis at age 43, why not keep going?
Thanks for your interview this week with Scott Ferguson. Following up on your conversation with him, I have a question about how we can distinguish "bogus" betting patterns from legitimate ones.
In particular, I am interested in the "odds-on favorite is down a set and a break, but miraculously comes back to win" scenario. Clearly, that situation has occurred countless times in tennis history—one of our favorite things about the top players, whoever your favorite might be, is their ability to claw back from the brink of defeat to eventually triumph. Surely not all such instances point to match rigging, right? So, if I am an avid fan (and avid better) and I see, for instance, that Nadal is up a break, then down a break, in the fifth set against Verdasco, and that I can get good odds if I bet on Nadal to come back one more time and win, and then Nadal does indeed win, why is my bet considered evidence of foul play? Or are the analytics sufficiently robust that *my* bet is not evidence of foul play, but someone else's is?
• “Irregular betting patterns” go deeper than this. Davydenko-Arguello is the classic case. We can—and I’m sure, will—talk more about this scandal going forward. Bottom line: There’s no question there are instances when “irregular patterns” do not mean there was corruption. There’s no question that in other cases, matches are being thrown. The evidence for both is overwhelming.
Hi Jon. I see Ana Ivanovic lost her opening two matches. What is going on with her? Is this really the same player who had such a terrific 2014? I have the feeling that she's going to struggle this year. Count me as one frustrated Ivanovic fan.
—Keith Jacobson, South Dakota
• I am publishing this mostly to show how quickly careers and fates can veer—which is why fans shouldn’t get too discouraged. Ivanovic played on the big court on Thursday, won, looked sharp and plays Madison Keys in a wide-open part of the draw on Saturday.
• Meredith has LLS: Doesn’t Michael Engler, a director of Downton Abbey, look like he could be Novak Djokovic’s older (twin!) brother?!