Hewitt/Nadal Report. Sounds like a GREAT match!
Hewitt caps the lesson
By Greg Baum
January 25, 2004
There were lessons for both players in an enthralling and inspiring match at Rod Laver Arena last night, won 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 by Lleyton Hewitt. For Rafael Nadal, they were about the here and now, as tightening at crucial times in his first centre-court appearance in a major cost him dearly. For Lleyton Hewitt, the lessons were about the future, as 17-year-old Spaniard Nadal showed compatriot Carlos Moya's prediction that he will soon be the world No. 1 was not glibly made. Already, Hewitt knows to avoid the teenager's forehand.
In many ways, Hewitt was challenged by himself of four or five years ago, but taller and darker. At 22, Hewitt already is looking in the face of generational change. The silence that descended on the packed and absorbed crowd at times last night was the sound of future shock. Hewitt needed all his fist pumps, "C'mons", and sundry mutterings to win. "Hell of a player," he said later. "I was expecting a great match, but it was a lot tougher than I expected. I really had to raise my game, and I'm just happy to get through."
Nonetheless, Hewitt is through to the round of 16 - as far as he has ever made it in the Australian Open, his most coveted and least-successful major. Next up is Roger Federer, a fellow veteran at 22, probably on Monday night, in a return of their epic Davis Cup five-setter on the same court last September. If Nadal is the shape of the future for Hewitt, Federer is his destiny now.
The least Federer knows, and Nadal learnt last night, is that Hewitt will not lose; he must be beaten. Nadal, the youngest of the Spanish armada, is a baby-faced left-hander in a bandana, with an impressive list of victims already in big-time tennis, and a rasping forehand like Adam Gilchrist's square drive. Hewitt knows now to work around it, but lesser players may not be able.
All night, Nadal made Hewitt play one more shot in every rally than usual, and hit a series of startling winners from the back court. Moreover, he showed a willingness to attack the net on occasion that is atypical of the Spanish. But Hewitt is the master of winning by attrition, and of harnessing the power of a partisan centre court, which prefaced the match by standing spontaneously and singing Advance Australia Fair. Hewitt on Saturday night at the Open is becoming a staple.
The least that can be said is the Spaniard brought out the best in the Australian.
Hewitt, unexpectedly, made the more hesitant and nervous beginning. Nadal's uncle plays soccer for Real Mallorca, played for Barcelona and represented Spain in last year's World Cup. For a lad who grew up (as far as he has) dreaming perhaps of the Nou Camp, Rod Laver arena held no fears. He took to the court at a jog, like a soccer player.
This match was a spectacle. There were no 200 km/h serves, but there was much else about which to gasp: touch, placement and desperation to run down every ball. The least that can be said is that the Spaniard brought out the best in the Australian.
Hewitt broke first in each of the first two sets, only for Nadal to break back immediately. Nadal led both tiebreaks 2-0, but made silly mistakes from which he surely will learn. For instance, he should certainly be more discreet henceforth about when to play drop shots against a player, and on a surface, that make them ill-advised.
Hewitt held his nerve, for he is nothing if not born for combat. From 0-2 in the first set tie-breaker, he won the next 12 points. Nadal appeared to slow a little after being treated for a sore knee between the first two sets, and looked to have run out of energy and ideas by the end of the third. But he was scarcely embarrassed.
The match finished with a rally that condensed what was best about it - Hewitt's backhand, Nadal's forehand, each pushing the other, daring the other, until Nadal missed.
Hewitt was warm in his salutations at the net. This night, Australia had its cake and ate it, too, for a local favourite won and a star was born, all in the one match.