We can give Davis Cup shake, says Lleyton Hewitt
AUSTRALIA'S greatest Davis Cup player Lleyton Hewitt yesterday declared the nation boasted the stocks to again challenge for the sport's most prestigious team event.
But the issue remains that while Bernard Tomic and Hewitt form a formidable singles combination, particularly on grass, and Chris Guccione a more-than-handy doubles partner for the latter, Australia must win its way from the Davis Cup depths to challenge in coming years.
It is eight years since Hewitt, who will join Todd Woodbridge as Australia's longest-serving player when he competes in his 32nd tie against China in the provincial setting of Geelong next weekend, helped the nation to its last Davis Cup by beating Spain in Melbourne on grass.
While the last time Australia was actually in a position to challenge for the cup was in 2007, both Hewitt and Australia captain Pat Rafter are confident that will change in the next 12 to 24 months.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the last three, four or five years, we have really belonged in the World Group," Hewitt said.
"The playoff matches that we have had to get back into the World Group have been brutal and that was the telling factor.
"Obviously with the team we have and getting a few home ties, I think we could do some damage in the World Group. We have just got to get back in it."
Rafter, who missed Australia's Davis Cup triumph in 1999 through injury and was retired by 2003, said the squad had shown when it pushed the Roger Federer-led Switzerland in Sydney at their most recent outing just how competitive it is.
"They were so close against Switzerland. They brought their best team out and the boys did great and I think Switzerland will be the team to beat this year, especially if Roger plays every tie. So the guys aren't far off," Rafter said.
"We are taking this very seriously. This year is about trying to get back into the World Group and then seeing how they go. I think this is a fantastic team. It is getting better and better."
That Australia is an improved squad this year is mirrored by the likely non-selection of Matt Ebden for a live rubber. The West Australian reached the quarter-finals of a Masters Series event in Shanghai last October, an effort that in recent years would almost have assured him of the reverse singles spot, given he is the nation's second-ranked player.
Yet the efforts of Tomic and Hewitt in reaching the second week of the Australian Open ensure that duo will line up against a likely Chinese pairing of Zhang Ze and Wu Di in the singles on Friday.
"Lleyton will play singles," Rafter said.
"Matty's ready. He's ready to rock'n'roll . . . but Lleyton's ranking is no reflection of how he's hitting the ball. To me, he's back in the top 20 in terms of how he's hitting the ball. He's our player."
While this weekend marks the first step in a process Australia hopes will end in a place in the World Group next year, it is another important step on the comeback trail for Hewitt, 31.
He has the most wins (47) and most singles victories (37) for Australia but struggled in the past two seasons to play matches and tournaments on a regular basis due to injuries -- before reaching the fourth round in Melbourne.
"My record on grass, going from the French Open into Queen's and Halle in the past has been exceptional, so I feel like I'm moving and hitting the ball really well."