Roddick, Hewitt will meet again
One American showed much promise in perhaps the toughest first-round matchup of the men's singles draw. The other reminded us why he was No. 1 back in the day as he blasted through his opener to set up a vintage second-round matchup.
Ryan Harrison played a spellbinding first set against Andy Murray in the first round of the Australian Open and then had to deal with the fact that one great set is not good enough at Grand Slam level.
Murray came through 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 but not before his 19-year-old opponent had laid out his precocious talent for an appreciative crowd on Melbourne Park's second stadium to enjoy.
In temperatures that soared into the 90s under a blazing sun, the world No. 4 and the American rookie embarking on just his second year on the tour sent each other racing off in every direction as eye-popping rallies unfolded. One lasted an incredible 41 strokes and, amazingly, it was Harrison who won most of them in the early stages. Murray was hitting deep but the teenager from Shreveport, La., was so quick that the man who has been in the last two finals here could not penetrate. And Harrison wasn't missing. Not early on, at least.
Inevitably, the tempo had to ease and Murray had more time to construct his points. He started putting more top on his backhand so that Harrison had to reach for the return on his own backhand side and when the Scot broke early in the second set, the momentum changed. Harrison fought off break points to prevent a second service loss but it was still not enough.
From his seat courtside, Murray's new coach, Ivan Lendl sat impassively, his dour expression never changing. Afterward he admitted, "The kid (Harrison) can play."
Murray agreed. "I thought he was good," he said. "He serves well. He's quick. There wasn't one thing that was incredible but there weren't too many holes in his game which, if you want to be a good player, you can't afford."
For Harrison, the difference lay in the way Murray started dictating those backhand rallies. "I felt like his backhand cross court was a little more effective," said this keen student of the game who expresses himself so well. "Whenever we were in that rally I felt he won 80 percent of them. I was the one having to force myself out of that rally. If I feel I'm losing those rallies I have to press my forehand a little more, which makes me uncomfortable. If I have to go bigger than I want to, you're not playing in your comfort zone."
For Andy Roddick, who came through in satisfying fashion 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 against the Dutchman Robin Haase, Harrison's performance was encouraging. He has had the young man over to his home in Austin, Texas on various occasions to practice with him and he has always been there for Ryan since he began to make his way on the pro tour.
"I thought he did pretty well," said Roddick. "I want him to play like that when he's not playing a top-10 player. If he does that, he won't be ranked 80 for much longer. It was a good performance but he has to bring that every time he goes to the court now."
As for his own game, Roddick was pleased with how well he served. "And I only missed a couple of returns," he said. "Felt as clean as it does for the first round of a Slam. I want to make sure every time I go out there I'm ready to play. Last year was the hardest one I had, physically. And, I think, therefore, mentally. I felt I was playing out of shape a lot of the time."
Next up for Roddick is old foe Lleyton Hewitt, the former Wimbledon champion who kept the Rod Laver crowd enraptured for nearly four hours by holding off a spirited challenge from the German newcomer Cedrik-Marcel Stebe to win 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. For a while it seemed that Hewitt had run out of steam — the first set alone took 64 minutes — as Stebe started to hit some splendid winners to take a 5-1 lead in the fourth set.
But Hewitt, whom Roddick respects "as much as anybody in the game," has made a career out of refusing to roll over. Still able to chase everything in sight, the 30-year-old Hewitt battled his way back to clinch it 7-5. There was an Epsom Derby winner many years ago called "Never Say Die." Hewitt should have been its jockey.
Later on a warm evening, Jo-Wifried Tsonga who was a finalist here in 2008, came through on the wing of some spectacular shot making to beat Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5. The Frenchman finished 2011 in fine form and appears to pose the biggest threat to the elite quartet at the top of the game.