Aussies anxiously await hometown hero
The Aussie fans have an unequivocal passion for tennis. But after all these years, they still agonize for a hometown Grand Slam champion. Is a revitalized Lleyton Hewitt the answer?
The Aussies making the news this year before their home Grand Slam are certainly an interesting bunch. Lleyton Hewitt, who needed hip surgery in August to save his career, is on the mend, while the controversial Jelena Dokic attempts to resurrect her career yet again. A guy once tipped as the next big hope and a feisty baseliner round out the varied cast. Here's a closer look:
Lleyton Hewitt: When Hewitt called for the trainer during his Hopman Cup match against old foe James Blake in Perth last week, fans across Australia must have held their collective breath. Not to worry. It wasn't his hip that was acting up: An ear infection was to blame, apparently the result of taking a swim.
A pair of three-set wins -- particularly a grueling battle against Mr. Endurance, Slovak veteran Dominik Hrbaty -- surely raised his confidence, though it's not as if Hewitt needed an ego boost. Despite missing the last 3½ months of 2008 -- essentially competing on one leg in the summer -- and falling out of the top 60, Hewitt figures he has a chance of winning in Melbourne. He brushed aside suggestions from popular Aussie Grand Slam champions Patrick Rafter and John Newcombe that he needs to revamp his counterpunching style and get on the offensive.
"I don't lose to too many average players in the big tournaments over five sets," the two-time Grand Slam champion pointed out, rightfully. "I still feel I'm good enough to knock off anyone on any given day."
Hewitt meekly exited to eventual champion (a recurring theme for the 27-year-old throughout his career) Novak Djokovic in the third round last January, hindered by a marathon encounter and late finish against Cypriot showman Marcos Baghdatis one round earlier.
Jelena Dokic: Call Dokic a submarine: She emerges, submerges, then pops up again.
For how long this time?
Now 25, Dokic earned a wild card into the Australian Open after winning a playoff against countrywoman Monika Wejnert last month. And this time there were no complaints. Last year, the former world No. 4 lambasted Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley for not giving her a direct wild card.
In fact, her current relationship with Tennis Australia is so rosy that Dokic is set to represent Australia in the Fed Cup for the first time since 2000. Her previous singles encounter, incidentally, was a win over another high-profile blonde with a tumultuous, albeit shorter career, Anna Kournikova.
"Like I said when I first arrived before the playoff, I apologize for the remarks I made this time last year, and that was my mistake," Dokic said. "I hope we can turn a corner."
Continued progress wouldn't hurt. Without a ranking early in January 2008, Dokic, still estranged from her controversial dad, Damir, subsequently claimed three minor league titles to rise inside the top 180. At last week's inaugural Brisbane International, Dokic extended eventual semifinalist Amelie Mauresmo to two tiebreakers in the opening round.
Dokic pulled out of qualifying at this week's Hobart International due to an Achilles injury, though she was adamant it wouldn't jeopardize her appearance in Melbourne.
Bernard Tomic: Tomic, the much-hyped (think Donald Young) 16-year-old, finally made his top-level debut at the Brisbane International. It didn't go too badly, either, as he lost a competitive match 6-4, 6-2 to rejuvenated Spaniard Fernando Verdasco.
"I think he has great talent, and he can be a good player," said Verdasco, on a high after clinching the Davis Cup title in December and beginning a relationship with Ana Ivanovic.
There was more good news for Tomic this week, as he was granted a wild card for the Australian Open.
Unfortunately for Tomic, the buildup was less pleasant. The reigning Australian Open junior champ incurred the wrath of Tennis Australia by walking off court during a Futures event in Perth at the request of his father, John. The latter was ticked because he felt his son's opponent wasn't being called for foot faults. Tomic subsequently disappointed in the men's wild-card playoff tournament, not even reaching the final.
The power-hitting lefty (Dellacqua, that is) achieved hero status in Australia after upsetting a pair of enigmas, gliding past Swiss lefty Patty Schnyder and graceful Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo, to reach the fourth round. Her grandmother, Bev Kirwan-Ward, lived and breathed every shot, displaying unadulterated joy and angst in equal measure. Then there was that pint-sized Australian flag embedded in her curls.
Dellacqua improved in the year-end rankings for a fifth straight year, up to No. 55, even if she couldn't quite maintain the form exhibited in Melbourne. Dellacqua and the net-rushing Samantha Stosur, in Dellacqua's support camp during the Australian Open while she recovered from Lyme disease and a viral illness, are fighting it out to be the national No. 1.
Todd Reid: Reid won't feature in Melbourne next week and is aptly described as Australian tennis' forgotten man. He says he's on the way back, which is a long way, considering his ranking of 864.
Hewitt, Stosur and the recently retired Alicia Molik all suffered from substantial injuries or illness, and Reid, groomed for success at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida, didn't get bypassed, either.
Don't remember the name? Considering his biggest achievement was largely overshadowed, it's understandable. Reid won the Wimbledon junior title in 2002, the same day Hewitt snared the big one at the All England Club.
Like Dellacqua and Molik, who gamely stretched then-No. 1 Lindsay Davenport to 9-7 in the third set of their Australian Open quarterfinal in 2005, Reid's finest Grand Slam moment came at home. He downed Armenian Sargis Sargsian in five sets in the second round a year earlier.
Just when he was charging to the top 100 and probably upwards, glandular fever struck, and he's never been the same. Derailed by steady relapses and other ailments, he contested a total of five events, all Futures, the previous three seasons.
"I'll just keep trying to get the ranking up," Reid told The Sydney Morning Herald in late December. "Should be fun. I'm starting from scratch."
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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2009 AUSTRALIAN OPEN
Women's singles: Serena Williams, United States
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Men's doubles: Bob and Mike Bryan, United States
Women's doubles: Serena and Venus Williams, United States
Mixed doubles: Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi, India
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