Entire nation riding Hewitt's run
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Sunday's centenary Australian Open final between local hero Lleyton Hewitt and Russian Marat Safin is more than just a promoter's dream -- it is a classic battle between one man's destiny and another's determination.
Hewitt has fantasized about winning the Australian Open since his parents introduced him to tennis as a small child.
He wasn't even born when Mark Edmondson, the last Australian to win the championship, beat John Newcombe in the 1976 final but he did see Pat Cash make the final in 1988.
Hewitt was just 7 years old at the time but decided then to dedicate his life to going one step further than his childhood hero by winning the title.
"The Australian Open obviously means a lot to me," Hewitt said this week. "Part of the dream's come true. I've put myself in a position to have a crack at it."
But Safin believes destiny is on his side and Hewitt will have to wait his turn. While the fiery Australian had never even made it past the fourth round in his previous eight appearances in the Open, Safin was runner-up in 2002 and again last year.
While he lost those two finals, the first to Thomas Johansson and the second to Roger Federer, he says fate is with him this time.
"I believe in destiny. I believe that everything that happened before to me, it had to happen," Safin said. "I really believe in that. I couldn't change it if it was meant to be this way."
After breaking through in his first Grand Slam final against Pete Sampras at the 2000 U.S. Open, Safin hasn't won another major title.
"Even though I won in 2000 against Sampras in New York, I wasn't really ready ... and last year I had no chance at all because I was completely burned out.
"Things are different this year. I have the experience of playing two finals, and I'm learning."
Tournament organizers were hoping for something special to mark the tournament's centenary anniversary but could not have scripted a better matchup for the first final scheduled at night.
While many players took a break at the end of last season, Hewitt went straight back to work getting himself in the best possible shape to try and win his home Slam.
He won a lead-up event in Sydney and his run continued in Melbourne when he won his first three matches comfortably. That changed in the next two rounds when he was taken to five sets by Spanish teenager Rafael Nadal then Argentine baseliner David Nalbandian, but Hewitt's hard work paid off.
Riding a wave of patriotism fueled by his never-say-die attitude, he managed to win both matches then succeeded in blunting the world's fastest serve to beat world No. 2 Andy Roddick in the semifinals.
"I put in the hard yards," Hewitt said. "I always said I'd do anything to play in the first night final in Australian Open men's history, and I've got my chance," he said.
Safin's road to the final was not as bumpy but no less spectacular. The fourth seed dropped just one set in his first four before beating the seemingly invincible Federer 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 9-7 in a heart-stopping semifinal.
Safin twice came back from a set down and saved a match point in the fourth set tiebreak to win one of the greatest battles ever played at the Australian Open and show he has the stomach for a fight.
Hewitt's golden run this year already has raised expectations about his prospects of winning the title but he says he's keeping his feet on the ground.
"I don't think expectation has ever worried me too much. I got thrown into the spotlight at a pretty young age and I think I've been able to handle it pretty well," Hewitt said.
"Obviously Marat's beaten the best player going around. He's obviously playing extremely well, so I'm going to have to raise my game again, go out there and give it everything."
Safin was equally wary. He beat the Australian when they last met, at the Paris Open last year, but over their careers, it's 5-5.
"We have a lot of respect for each other. We have a good relationship and it's not gonna change after the match," Safin said.
"He's been No. 1 in the world two years in a row. He's a huge fighter. He has unbelievable anticipation. He has unbelievable fitness. He knows the game very well, and psychologically, he's very stable.
"But I'm just going to try and stick to my game. Even if I'm losing I will have a chance to bring it back. A final is a final, there's lots of nerves. I've made such a long run to the final, it will be just a little bit too stupid to waste [the] opportunity, a third one especially."