Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Lleyton Hewitt Goes Down Under

Trust me, I didn't want to make the pun above in the title. If there is one drawback to being Australian (and there can't be many as their general life outlook, great weather and beautiful women suggest that living on the island is not a bad lifestyle), it is the fact that one can't have a conversation about anything Australian without making some sort of awful pun about the country. Some of this is due to our American need to run jokes into the ground. "Put another shrimp on the barbie," "Good day mate!", "Crocodile Dundee" and a host of other terrible Australian jokes are always brought up by Americans, usually in the worst accent imaginable. But the Aussies themselves are not entirely blameless either. One cannot go even five minutes around a group of Australians in public without them singing "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" or yelling "MATE!" at the top of their lungs. If we are all stereotypical at creating Jay Leno-level jokes about our Australian friends, the countrymen themselves at least bear some responsibility.

Nevertheless, I have always envied the Australian people. Whether it was during my childhood pulling for the eternal loser, Greg Norman, watching Joe Hachem win the World Series of Poker or sitting on Louis Armstrong Court trying to will Lleyton Hewitt to a "turn back the clock" victory. I have Aussie envy and it causes me to pull for them in whatever competition of which they find themselves a part. Thus on Tuesday, I sat in the sweltering heat watching what I knew was inevitable...a Lleyton Hewitt loss that would lead the worst tabloid headline writer to say, "Lleyton Blew-it."  With a chance to make the first Grand Slam Quarterfinal since 2006, Hewitt found a way to instead blow a 4-1 lead in the fourth set and a 5-2 lead in the fifth, losing five straight games in each and dropping the match to Mikhail "All You Want to Do is" Youzhny. Throughout the match, Youzhny was the better player, but Hewitt did just what my golfing hero Norman used to do as well...just enough to guarantee a painful defeat. His consistent returns and solid ground strokes, forced Youzhny to hit well-placed winners to get points. When he was unable to do so, Hewitt went on a roll. When he hit his stride and played Top 20 level tennis, Lleyton had no answer.

Throughout the match, Hewitt had opportunities to win big points, all by hitting shots that the top players can make in their sleep. A slight mishit by Youzhny would cause the ball to hang in the air just enough that a Top 20 player would slam it with enough pace to guarantee a point. But for Hewitt these opportunities were wasted, as he instead blocked back returns and guaranteed that the point would be won or lost on the racket of Youzhny. It is a style that does well against weaker players, but for the stretches of the match where Mikhail was dialed in (specifically the end of the 4th and 5th set), Hewitt was a dead man walking. The casual pace of the match (and the long rallies on each point) just seemed to string out the inevitable. Just like watching Greg Norman trudge through the back nine at Augusta in 1996, the fate was predetermined but the agony getting there was just more painful.

All in all it was a great run for Hewitt in Queens this week. But he may never have quite a chance like this again, after knocking out the powerful Del Potro and playing with caution instead of seizing his chances during crucial points. He will always have his Open Championship here to fall back on, but he will likely regret what might have been on this day and missing out a chance to get a shot at the #1 player in the world, Novak Djokovic, on Arthur Ashe Stadium one last time. At least he can take solace in his Australian fans, who reacted to the loss as only they would...by chanting "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie,"hugging and chugging. It is the Australian way.