Rusty’s Last Ride?

Lleyton Hewitt’s brashness has mellowed. Fatherhood and family life can soften a young man’s edges. Lleyton Hewitt’s dogged consistency has become less resolute. Nagging injuries and more than a dozen years on tour have a way of seeing to that. But Lleyton Hewitt believes this will not be his final Australian Open. He seems convinced of it.  Once it’s upstart, Hewitt has now graduated to senior statesman of Australian tennis, even if he continues to make the curious choice of wearing his hat backwards. What he truly has left entering this Australian Open is anyone’s guess. Ranked 50-something, Hewitt is unseeded, and holding the distinction of being a “dangerous floater” in the draw; not those freaky shadows you occasionally see in the corner of your eye, but someone no top player wants to face in the 1st round. In this case, it’s David Nalbandian; not a favorite, but a popular choice in the sleeper category.

Hewitt’s longest and most memorable run in Melbourne came in 2005, when he made it all the way to the finals before hitting a Safin-sized brick wall (see above). Hewitt was possessed that tournament: a combination of Jimmy Connors and Hulk Hogan. He had always been fit, but he came into that tournament sleeveless and proud of his enhanced guns. It was reminiscent of how Stallone was in good shape for the first two Rocky movies, but by the time the third rolled around he morphed into a Men’s Health cover model. I don’t know what he was sprinkling on his Corn Flakes leading up to that fortnight, but never before, or since, did Hewitt ever look so jacked.

Beyond that, though, was Hewitt’s on-court antics; he was at his raging, antagonizing best (or worst). There was an almost theatrical, pro-wrestling, quality to his matches that year. The Vicht was flying after big points and he introduced and an over-the-top fist-pump that Brad Gilbert dubbed, “The Lawnmower”. He would whip the crowd into a frenzy, channeling his inner Hulkster with flexes and poses. It drove his opponents, including Nalbandian, bananas. One (Chela) even tried to spit on him. Although in Hewitt’s defense, that guy seems like a prick.

International events, like Grand Slams, are always more interesting when the host nation has a reason to stick out its chest. Sam Stosur is Australia’s best hope on the women’s side, and after all these years it still falls on Hewitt to give the crowds Down Under a reason to cheer. If not they’ll always have 2005: The year Hewitt turned the tennis court into a squared circle and nearly won the whole thing.

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