Lleyton Hewitt talks footy dreams and on-court rivalries ahead of the Brisbane International
A HANDFUL of doctors suggested Lleyton Hewitt should give tennis away after recent surgery but he is not a man easily shown the door. Hewitt kicks off his Australian Open warm-up in the Brisbane International next week. He spoke to Robert Craddock.
Ricky Ponting says he still dreams about running out for North Melbourne. Have you had similar ones about the Crows?
Yes. It's funny he said that. I've had times when I have dreamt that I have had discussions with (former Crows coach) Neil Craig about where I was playing ... and then you wake up. I love AFL.
We have all seen your on-court passion but some people say you are very quiet away from tennis. Who is the real Lleyton Hewitt?
I am two different people. What you see on the court is just natural for me. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I have always said "C'mon'' purely to fire myself up. Off the court I am a lot shyer. I stick to my team and my family and people I trust.
If you could take one shot from any player on tour what would it be?
For my game … the serve of an (John) Isner or an (Ivo) Karlovic. Those guys have the best serves and that would be fantastic for me. If I could hold every service game like they do then I would be a force in every tournament with my ground strokes.
You have had some hot-blooded exchanges with the Argentinean players, haven't you?
It has nearly stopped now. The younger Argentineans are fantastic. (Juan Martin) del Potro is one of my closest mates on tour. Juan Monaco is a great guy.
But there was some genuine heat with the likes of David Nalbandian and (Juan Ignacio) Chela?
It all started from Chela actually. When I beat Nalbandian in the Wimbledon final we were fine and used to practice together. I played Chela at the Australian Open and he spat at me. He got frustrated with me revving the crowd up and saying "C'mon''. At the time I did not do much about it but my coach Roger Rashid went ballistic in the locker room at Chela his coach and his trainer. It was funny but that got back to the other Argentinean boys.
Two matches later I played Nalbandian in the quarter finals on Australia Day. I won the first two sets and lost the next two and in the middle of the fifth set we bumped shoulders. It was not a big thing but Nalbandian turned around as if to say "what have you done?'' We both could have stopped but we just kept walking. I won 10-8 in the fifth and have never spoken to the bloke since.
Any plans to?
No, I probably never will. I am not a big fan of the guy. I have heard some stories about him. We have had the same physios and there have been a lot of things ... one of the toughest trips I ever made was to Argentina for the Davis Cup. It was brutal.
Do rivalries like that turn you on or offend you?
Sometimes it fires you up more. I have sometimes played my best Davis Cup matches away from home when you stay in the moment a bit more. But is tough when half the crowd are spitting on you.
When many long-lasting sportsmen retire they have lingering aches and pains. Will you be sweet?
Probably not. I have been through a bit more than most tennis players I reckon. As you get older everything hurts. Pat Rafter's was all upper body but mine was my hips, knee and now foot.
Which is the most serious?
My foot. I was lucky to have a great surgeon in Melbourne. I spoke to four or five surgeons around the world and the basically told me to hang `em up. They said if I was going to have the surgery I had then I would not be able to play any more. There is no other athlete who has had this surgery who has come back and played again but it is a little bit of who I am to go out and prove everybody wrong.
What about drugs in tennis. Any issues?
I guess some of the boys are frustrated that some guys have been done once or twice and then they are able to come back after six months or a year out. Mariano Puerta, an Argentinean bloke, screwed up the entire French Open (in 2005) because he was on drugs the whole tournament and knocked all these great players out. He got to the final and lost to Nadal, thank god. At least we had a worthy winner.
What happened to Puerta?
Eighteen months later he was back playing. That was his second offence. That frustrates everyone who is doing the right thing. They have to tighten that up.
Novak Djokovic does impersonations of many top players including yourself. Do you find him funny?
Yeah ... ummm ... he is a funny guy but I am not that close to him. There is not a lot of banter in the locker room. He hangs out with the Serbian and Croatian guys a lot more.
What's Roger Federer like?
A good guy but no-one is really close to him. He keeps his distance from everyone. But I have always got on with him extremely well.
Are there any of the big boys you really warm to?
Yes. (Rafael) Nadal. He is my favourite to watch, to train with, everything. For me it was even awesome to be able to commentate his Australian Open final against Djokovic. Rafa was struggling with his body going into the tournament but played one of the greatest matches of all time. His never-say-die attitude is awesome.
I remember you saying he intimidates opponents even before a ball is hit by generally being a bulldog. Impressed?
Yeah. He plays to his time. He is always the last to get up at the change of ends. Even when you are tossing the coin at the net he is jumping around and in your face. He sprints back to the base line after that and then and this is something the public don't see he hits the ball much harder in the warm-ups than anyone else. It creates a major presence.
Does it make a difference?
Of course. Matches are won and lost so many times in the locker room. Guys get in their mind how strong he is the warm-ups and that they will have to endure four hours of that to beat him they are beaten even before they step on court. But that's why I like him. He basically says you are going to have to kill me to beat me.
Was there any game when you considered a rival player delivered the highest standard of tennis you had ever played against?
Yes Federer both times. In the 2004 in the US Open final I went through the whole tournament without losing a set until the final then I lost in straight sets. He was awesome. And another time at the Australian Open at night when I could not jump him out of his comfort zone.
You put such passion into your games. What about Bernard Tomic and his current plight?
It is a tough one for him. He had a lot of pressure on him this year. Your second year on tour is always tougher than your first when you go under the radar. He snuck through the draw at Wimbledon and made the quarter-finals but the following year everyone knows who he is and how to play him. Then he feels the pressure of defending those points. That snowballed on him a bit. The biggest thing for him will be clearing his mind and letting the racquet do his talking.
Are you certain he will make it?
He is there already. He is ranked in the 50s on tour. How high he will get? I don't know. The good thing for him is there is not many young guys doing anything. I was on the tour at 16, Nadal was there at 15, Richard Gasquet, Safin, Federer ... late teenagers making second weeks of grand slams.
You are known for having a forensic knowledge of your opponents. It must be great to have that, but there must times when you play a red hot Federer and you think ``here we go ... Roger game plan No 22a?''
Yes. You do feel he has the answers sometimes. He is the hardest to predict because has so much variety. Other players have weak points you can pinpoint. If Roger's backhand is not working he will start slicing and that slice is the best in the world.
Are you worried when you leave the Davis Cup ranks the one man chain kept strong by Cash then Rafter then you could be broken?
I am a little bit. Pat Rafter has the same worry. I tell Pat I am available for whatever he wants but it can be hard to play three days in a row if I am playing on clay and backing up after surgery. It is a concern. We are trying to push through your (James) Duckworth's, Ben Mitchell, Matty Reid ... there is a few guys out there but no-one has taken the biggest step.
Most players normally have a pin-up idol. Did you?
No one particular player. I liked Pat Cash and I loved Mats Wilander. I went to the Australian Open with my parents and I used to watch Wilander being cheered on by the Swedish fans and with his game style being like mine I drew comparisons with him.
Is there any one thing which has helped you play for so long?
Not one thing but a playing schedule in important. I have never been one to play a lot of tournaments. Even when I was No.1 in the world I played a limited schedule. I played the tournaments I felt I could do well in. In the first half of my career I had no real big injuries. The last four years I have had five surgeries.
Do you still get nervous?
Absolutely. That's good though. It proves how much you want it.