Long-running rivalry: Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer have been facing off for decades. Photo: Viki LascarisIt was more than two decades ago that two young punks, from opposite sides of the world, but only six months apart in age, began to cross paths at junior tournaments. Today, as veterans with their own growing families courtside, they are still at it. The difference is that one is ranked 300-plus, is having absolutely his last fling and is being feted and indulged and showered in blandishments as he goes. The other is ranked No.3 and is still half a chance to win the Australian Open.
One went high road, one low. Lleyton Hewitt was 21 when he won the second of his two major titles. Roger Federer was older than that when he won the first of his 17. Hewitt’s long reign as world No.1 finished almost a year before Federer’s longer reign began. Their head-to-head record is instructive. Hewitt won seven of their first nine clashes, Federer 16 of 18 since.
Sportspeople peak at different ages, and no-one can definitively say why. But it explains much. Nothing came too soon to Federer, and he has never acted as if anything was his due. Everything came early to Hewitt. It is not a criticism. Few men so young could have met Kipling’s twin impostors with the necessary equanimity. By the time Federer got going, he was insulated, educated and ready.
Hewitt is spent. Federer still gives the impression that there is improvement in him. One detail from the first game of his match on Wednesday against Alex Dolgopolov shows it. A wide serve was called in, but when challenged by Dolgopolov was shown to be out by millimetres. Unfazed, Federer hit his next serve to the same place, but inside the line, acing Dolgopolov. Any player other than Federer would have looked like a smart-arse.
It was the first of 25 aces by Federer, nearly all wide of Dolgopolov’s forehand. When at last the Ukrainian shifted his stance, Federer aced him down the middle. Federer said the quick daytime conditions helped his serve, that all players should try to sharpen their serve anyway because it was the one shot over which they had absolute control, and that he was glad to avoid an excess of long rallies with Dolgopolov, with his good and sometimes startling groundstrokes.
Otherwise, this match was another instance of the Federer effect. However high you raise your game against him, he will always be one rung higher. Implied pressure tells. Dolgopolov was at his best when, having manouvered into a winning position in a point, he did not overplay it. But too often, he played the reputation rather than the ball.
Federer was glad to get him out of the way; he was a much better player than many ranked above him, he said. Federer made his killing as painless as possible, for both of them. Next comes Grigor Dimitrov, once hailed as the Baby Fed. They must all look like babies to him now, except Hewitt.
Two of Federer’s four children were courtside, heads buried in books, seeming oblivious to Dad. Federer said it was how he preferred it. He doesn’t envisage them as tennis players, nor himself as a tennis parent. “And they don’t necessarily love it the way I did,” he said. If they do fall in love with the game, he will back them, of course; after all, it has given him everything he has and knows. “(But) to go watch tennis matches … I don’t now,” he said. “As much as I love it now, I’m not sure what my excitement level will be in 20 years’ time.” Here is another contrast with Hewitt, who can hardly be imagined anywhere other than a tennis court.
Hewitt’s mortality is hard upon him. Federer seems indestructible. He hasn’t missed a major championship this century, and his next win will be his 300th.
Hewitt would be rapt to make it to the third round, Federer disappointed if it was only round three, as it was last year. “I think a lot of retired players could still be at this level,” he said. “They just choose not to do any more.” Mostly, though, the decision is made for them. One sad day, this will come to pass even for Federer.