On Saturday night while Serena Williams — a 6-1, 6-1 winner over Hungary’s Greta Arn — was talking about kinesiology papers, management classes and wanting to get a business degree, Lleyton Hewitt, who had followed her on Rod Laver Arena, was trying to win a tennis match.
You can be sure that Hewitt’s focus was on nothing other than a fuzzy yellow ball as he tried to track the 140 miles per hour serves of the powerful young Canadian Milos Raonic and when he won by 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 the Australian collapsed in a sweaty heap while 15,000 people rose to acclaim their hero.
And Hewitt is a hero to the Australian public. They love the way he lays it all on the line; battles to the end and never gives an inch. They love his spirit and his guts and many realize just what he is putting himself through out here. He is hurting. Apart from ankle surgery, there is the big toe which won’t heal and which continues to give him pain. Many, at the age of 30 and two Grand Slam titles in the bag, would walk away. But Hewitt’s not going anywhere — except to the next tennis tournament.
And on a warm Saturday night in Melbourne he showed why. No matter what happens when he meets Novak Djokovic in the fourth round, Hewitt has proved he can take on the young brigade and put them in their place. He might have gotten lucky against an old rival when Andy Roddick had to retire against him the previous round but 21-year-old Raonic was fully fit and mighty strong.
It was a big test for the Canadian because, even though he has won ATP titles in San Jose, Calif., and Chennai, this was the first time that he had appeared on one of the world’s great arenas. And the opposition was never going to be easy.
Nevertheless Raonic managed to control the first set but soon he found himself facing the full force of the Hewitt personality on a tennis court — the in-your-face pressure of a world-class competitor who will chase and grapple for every point.
After Hewitt had found a way to break the Canadian serve in the second set, there was nothing to choose between them in the third and when the score reached 3-3 it was still anybody’s match. Then Hewitt grabbed a mini-break to lead 6-3 with two serves to come. But, to his credit, Roanic stayed rock solid on both, coming out on top in two rallies as Hewitt netted ground strokes. But the third set point, on his own serve, was a disaster. He came charging in behind a great forehand approach shot and then lost his balance as he moved across the net to deal with a floating return. He was almost falling forward as he hit the ball and dumped it into the net.
Hewitt played a great return game to break at the top of the fourth and, despite missing two match points as the crowd went wild, he eventually finished the job when Roanic netted. "It was very satisfying," Hewitt said with something of an understatement. "A couple of months ago I didn’t know whether I would be able to play this tournament but I always want to play here and I never write myself off."
In fact, by winning, Hewitt had created an Open era record by becoming the first Australian to reach the second week of this Slam for the seventh time. Young Bernard Tomic may turn out to be Sunday’s hero but it is Lleyton the public will always carry in their hearts.
Before she plays the unseeded Russian Ekaterina Makarova, Serena will be checking on the paper she has written for her management class. She is a busy lady. "The communication I have had is really great," she said referring to her kinesiology teacher. "I’ve always thought that if I could learn about my body and keep learning physiology, sciences and stuff like that just for the future, it would be really cool. You can never stop learning about your body."
Over on the second stadium court, Hisense Arena, Andy Murray moved swiftly through to the fourth round with 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 defeat of the French left-hander Michael Llodra. It was never a contest after the first set but it was hugely entertaining as the extrovert Llodra came up with all sorts of outrageous shots that were often matched by the fleet-footed Murray. It was exhibition stuff and the crowd loved it.
This tournament is obviously giving people what they want because the attendance figures have been amazing. Every session is several thousand up on last year and, on Saturday, two sessions saw over 80,000 pour into Melbourne Park — figures which put tennis alongside cricket and Aussie Rules football as the biggest draw card in this sports-mad city.