Hewitt finds 'C'mon' cause in quest for home crown

The former world tennis No 1 talks to John Roberts about the pressure to become the first Australian to win his country's Open for almost 30 years

We in Britain, who cling to a statue of Fred Perry to remind us that we had a Wimbledon men's singles champion in 1936, should be the last to point out deficiencies to others on the tennis court. None the less, it is astonishing to think that the land of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson, to name but a few, has not produced a home champion for almost 30 years.

We in Britain, who cling to a statue of Fred Perry to remind us that we had a Wimbledon men's singles champion in 1936, should be the last to point out deficiencies to others on the tennis court. None the less, it is astonishing to think that the land of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson, to name but a few, has not produced a home champion for almost 30 years.

As the Australian Grand Slam tournament prepares to mark its centenary next Monday, Lleyton Hewitt is the latest to be burdened with carrying his nation's hopes. Hewitt has yet to advance beyond the fourth round at the Australian Open, but goes into this year's tournament optimistic that he can do a lot better. "To win this year would be fantastic," Hewitt says, "but I'll take the Australian Open any year I can get it. With it being the centenary, there's going to be a lot of celebration about it. For me, it's just another Australian Open and a matter of going out there and trying to get beyond the round of 16."

Tim Henman, 30, four times a Wimbledon semi-finalist, says he is inspired rather than intimidated when playing at the All England Club. Hewitt, 24 next month, coped manfully with Wimbledon's aura of history, but, then, the All England Club is not on his doorstep.

Although Melbourne Park has only played host to the Australian Open for the past 17 years, it is worth remembering that Hewitt was barely seven when the majestic stadium with its retractable roof was inaugurated in 1988. For him, Valhalla is on the banks of the Yarra. "There's obviously extra pressure and extra expectation," Hewitt says, "but I don't think that's why I haven't done better in the tournament. I've done too much in Davis Cup ties in the past, when there's probably more pressure, for that to be the case.

"At the stage when I was No 1 [in 2002], I got the chicken pox, and that pretty much put an end to my hopes. I lost to [Roger] Federer last year in the round of 16, and he was obviously the best player. Apart from that, I felt like I maybe could have have been in the semis and final.

"The year before that, I lost to [Younes] El Aynaoui. I didn't break serve for a whole match, five sets. That doesn't happen too often for me. There's been a few weird matches over the years, but I feel like this year I'm going to have a good crack at it."

When it comes to playing on home ground, Hewitt, like Henman with the grass at Wimbledon, has complained that the rubberised concrete courts at Melbourne Park, on which the ball bounces to shoulder height, have been made too slow.

Hewitt's compatriot Pat Rafter, who won the US Open in 1997 and 1998, contended that the rubberised concrete courts in New York play differently to the Rebound Ace in Melbourne. Hewitt, who won the US Open in 2001, is convinced that is the case. "I think there's a massive difference," he says. "The US Open is a lot quicker. The ball stays a lot lower. There was one year, 2000, where the Australian Open courts played a lot quicker than it has in the past. But the last few years it's played closer to the clay [at the French Open] than to the [concrete at the] US Open."

Pat Cash, Australia's 1987 Wimbledon champion, sympathises. "The Aussies all used to grow up on grass courts, but we have lost that advantage," Cash says. "One year when [Pete] Sampras won in Melbourne, he said the court was slower than clay. Lleyton didn't grow up on grass. The only grass now is at Wimbledon, but the courts have been slowed down there and don't benefit [Tim] Henman and the other British players."

Hewitt, underlining his determination to improve his record, added: "I'd play on cow dung if necessary." He knows that Federer, the defending champion, who has developed a habit of thrashing him, is likely to be the greatest obstacle to every challenger, and that Andy Roddick and Marat Safin share his own desire for success.

"I think it's great for tennis," Hewitt says. "Four guys from different countries, four young guys who have won Grand Slams and have all been No 1 in the world and are totally different characters. I think we all get along pretty well. We respect each other, both on and off the court.

"Federer's a great bloke. I get along really well with Roger. He's very down to earth. I think that's probably the best quality he has. He's very easy to get along with. I always say 'G'day' to him, have a chat.

"Last year was probably as consistent a year as I've had. I lost to the winners of the four Grand Slams, Federer and [Gaston] Gaudio. I was hitting the ball well on all surfaces. Making the US Open final again was a huge bonus."

Noted for shouting "C'mon!" to psyche himself up and to let opponents know they can expect trouble, Hewitt has adopted another method of showing his confidence, a Swedish gesture known as "Visst!" ("For Sure!"), which is formed by bending his right hand into the shape of a snake's head and aiming the hand towards the bridge of his nose. Mats Wilander introduced "Visst!" to tennis en route to winning the 1988 Australian Open, having seen his compatriot Niclas Kroon make the gesture during a game of cards.

"I saw Mats Wilander do it at the Aussie Open," Hewitt says. "I went every year. I used to sit up near the Swedish group of fans out there. They had an amazing following. I loved it. A fair number of Swedes still go to the tournament. Not as many as when Mats and Stefan [Edberg] and everyone were at their best. But if Jonas [Bjorkman] or [Joachim] Johansson now gets a go, then they'll come out of the woodwork."

Although Hewitt is rebuilding his personal life after his broken engagement to Kim Clijsters, of Belgium, a former women's world No 1, and is involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the ATP, who fined him for refusing to do a television interview, and his relationship with the majority of the Australian tennis writers continues to be testy, his competitive spirit keeps him buoyant.

An abiding memory is of an impromptu game of cricket in the media restaurant at the Masters Cup in Houston, with a stick for a bat and a chair for a wicket. Hewitt belted the ball with glee and also took a hat-trick of wickets.

AUSSIE WOE: THE STRUGGLE TO EMULATE EDMONDSON

It is 29 years since an Aussie won the men's singles title at the Australian Open, and only one home player has advanced to the final since the championships moved from the grass courts at Kooyong to the rubberised concrete Rebound Ace at Melbourne Park in 1988.

Mark Edmondson, in 1976, was the last home champion. The 22-year-old former maintenance man from Gosford, New South Wales, is also the only unseeded men's champion. He defeated two ageing compatriots, Ken Rosewall, in the semi-finals, and John Newcombe, in the final.

It was Edmondson's only Grand Slam final, although his grass-court skills took him to the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1982, and he led Bjorn Borg by two sets to love in the second round there in 1977. "Edo", noted for his resilience, won five Tour titles.

Lleyton Hewitt, the 2001 US Open champion and 2002 Wimbledon champion, is one of seven Grand Slam men's singles winners from Australia who have failed to nail their home title. Hewitt has yet to reach the quarter-finals in Melbourne.

Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion, was twice a runner-up to Swedish players on home ground, to Stefan Edberg, on grass at Kooyong in 1987, and to Mats Wilander the following year in the inaugural tournament on rubberised concrete at Flinders Park (now Melbourne Park). That was the last time an Australian appeared in the final.

Pat Rafter mastered the concrete courts at Flushing Meadows in New York to win the US Open in 1997 and 1998, but a semi-final appearance in 2001 was his best result in Melbourne.

Even in the days when three of the four Grand Slam championships were played on grass, the exception being the clay courts at the French, Neale Fraser won at Wimbledon and the US Open but was the runner-up three times in Australia. Fred Stolle won the French and US titles but was disappointed in two Australian finals, as was Mal Anderson, the 1957 US champion. Tony Roche, winner at the French in 1966, did not progress beyond the semi-finals in Australia.

John Roberts

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