At the Australian Open today
Even though the holiday is a couple days away, it's Australia Day at Melbourne Park today.
Aussies Lleyton Hewitt and Alicia Molik headline the night's matches as each is trying to end a decades-long title drought for Aussies at their home tournament.
Hewitt plays talented Spaniard Rafael Naldal, while Molik takes on Venus Williams in the fourth round.
Hewitt defeated Nadal in the third round of last year's Australian Open in a tight three sets 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5), 6-2.
This one could be even closer. These are two guys who don't concede points. Nadal, 18, chases everything down with a true all-court game. He hits big, powerful groundstrokes that are so big it shocks you when he races to net and with the lightest of touches makes a winning volley. Hewitt treats every point like its match point. He keeps his errors down and his spirits high. If you're looking for a match with personality -- this will be it.
"It's very, very difficult match, hard," Nadal said. "But I am playing good. I am in the fourth round. Is my best result in one Grand Slam."
"He loves going there, playing big matches," Hewitt said. "That's something that I really respect ... The big matches don't worry him. He's that kind of kid. He's like me when I was 16, 17."
Nadal thrived in Spain with the largest crowd in tennis history cheering him on as he defeated No. 2 Andy Roddick on clay in the Davis Cup final in December 6-7 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-2 to give Spain a crucial 2-0 lead. The match with Hewitt shouldn't be intimidating by comparison.
"I have confidence with this match," Nadal said. "I want play very good match. If I play very good match and Hewitt not his best match, I think I have one chance."
The odds are with him. Hewitt's never made it to the quarterfinals in Melbourne. In fact, since Pat Cash was the runner-up at the Australian Open in 1988, Aussie men have a 2-18 record in this round. Things haven't been any better for the women. Molik is trying to become the first Aussie woman to reach the quarterfinals since Hana Mandlikova and Anne Minter did in 1988.
It's Molik's second consecutive year in the round of 16. In the past year, she's raised her rank from a season-ending 35 in 2003 to a career high of 12 headed into this event. Venus holds a 3-0 record against her but that was before Molik's rise in the rankings and Venus' own drop to No. 9. Although she's a four-time major champion, Venus last won at the 2001 U.S. Open. Still, her experience as runner-up in six other major finals makes her confident about facing Molik on her home turf.
"We were destined to meet, I guess," said Venus, who has yet to drop a set in the tournament. "This will be a huge match for her in Australia. I've played a lot of huge matches in my life.
"I couldn't classify this as the largest. Probably the biggest match this year."
Does that give her an advantage?
"On paper, sure," she said. "But in the end, I need to get out there and play well. Likewise, the same for her."
One advantage Molik and Hewitt share. Aussie crowds enjoy cheering anyway, but for their own countryman and woman? It's gonna be loud.
"They're awesome," Hewitt said about one particularly loud cheering squad known as the Fanatics. "Wazzo and the boys are fantastic. Something that I've grown up playing the Davis Cup with them there, you know, every time. You know, there's been a lot of away ties, I think, where if it wasn't for them, then I probably wouldn't have got over the line on a lot of occasions.
"They've really helped me out a lot. ... I think they get the crowd going, singing the National Anthem, stuff like that out there. I know I've got to be concentrating, but it's pretty funny."
"I think definitely they'll be supporting Alicia," Venus said of the crowd. "I would imagine they'll be fair on the good shots. But I've played in front of all kinds of crowds before. In the end, I just am more or less looking at the ball, and then after the match, that's when I relax."
As always, Venus is less worried about what her opponent might bring to the court and more about getting her own game right.
"For me it's all about consistency and errors," she said. "Even if I make a lot of errors, usually I'm winning the match. But the less errors I make, the tougher it is for my opponent. So for me, no errors. At that rate, it will be a very competitive match."
The surface this year could make it a more competitive match between Nadal and Hewitt. Every year, a new Rebound Ace surface is laid. Hewitt complained this year that it's too slow. He prefers the faster courts at the U.S. Open. A slower hard court, however, equalizes things for players. Guys who grew up on clay but can also play on hard court perform well on a slow hard court. Enter Nadal.
"Is not too fast, not too slowly, too," Nadal said. "But the ball, when I touch (has a) good bounce. I like. Yes, last year I play good here."
And so far, this year, too.
"He's pretty aggressive from the baseline," Roddick said. "He's not super big, but he can hit great shots and then kind of go away sometimes. You know, my goal is just going to try to be to play solid."
Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor at ESPN.com.
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