Tennis, circa 2001, was like the valley of flowers just before spring. The old flowers had withered and died and the younger ones were about to bloom to a life of colour and bask in nature’s kindness.
And two of the brightest flowers in that valley were 20-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, with legs that could run all night and Andy Roddick, a year younger, of the big serve fame and the A Rod nickname. They met in the quarterfinals of the US Open that year.
Still being taunted by a few spectators into the quarterfinals because of a controversial incident in the second round against James Blake, Hewitt had watched almost sympathetically while Roddick lost his mind on an over-rule in the crucial 10th game of the fifth set. Moments later, the Aussie closed it out with a shout of ‘Come on!’
Hewitt went on to win the US Open that year, beating Pete Sampras in the final. But he was still very much the kid.
“I’ve still got my junior photo on my badge here,” Hewitt had mused, wearing his cap backward, in the post-match news conference. Junior photo; US Open champ… for a start, it doesn’t get much better.
A few years later, in 2003, Roddick won the US Open. Both, Hewitt and Roddick, went on to become world number ones as well before Roger Federer took over.
Suddenly their weapons, Hewitt’s speed around the court and Roddick’s big serve and forehand were rendered meaningless. They remained competitive, scarily so but they never got past the wall that was Federer.
Roddick’s record against Federer is an almost embarrassing 2 wins in 23 matches. Hewitt, on the other hand, started off well against the Swiss – winning seven of the first nine matches they played. But the record now stands at 18-8 in Federer’s favour – a complete shutout.
The battles between Roddick and Hewitt are much more even. Their head-to-head record shows that the American has a 7-6 advantage — but he’s won six in a row. But most of those victories are hard-fought wins because the Aussie never learned how to give up.
And now they meet again. In the second round of a Grand Slam – Hewitt and Roddick in the second round of the Australian Open seems early, much too early.
“I have as much respect for him as I do for anybody in the game, how he goes about his business, how professional he is,” Roddick said when asked about the match-up. “He’s a fighter.”
“He’s an all-court player,” Hewitt was effusive with his praise too. “He’s probably added to his net game a little bit more since the first time I played him, whatever it was, when he was 19, 20, whatever it was. He’s a complete player.”
The match-up, of course, is only possible because the 30-year-old Hewitt has undergone multiple hip surgeries, and his ranking has almost fallen to 200th in the world. But Roddick, the 15th seed, knows better than to underestimate Hewitt – in front of his home crowd, the Aussie will not back down; he will not break.
Kids scare old gunslingers. That’s what Hewitt did to Sampras. And that’s what this host of young stars has done to both, Hewitt and Roddick.
But perhaps the sight of each other will allow them to rediscover their old glory; perhaps they won’t feel overmatched anymore… perhaps they’ll be young again for a day. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll see some of the old magic.
Either way, it’s a mouth-watering clash; a clash for the ages.