A pair of doddering 32-year-olds will give it a go in the hot cauldron of Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday. Lleyton Hewitt is playing his 18th consecutive Australian Open and Roger Federer his 57th Grand Slam event in a row, breaking the record he shared with Wayne Ferreira of South Africa.
Hewitt made his tournament debut in another millennium – 1997. “It’s the only time I’ve never played on Rod Laver Arena,” he laughed, “my only singles match on an outside court.”
‘Rusty’ from Adelaide is 30-17 at Melbourne Park and has only once made it past the round of 16 – losing the 2005 final to Marat Safin.
His victory over Federer in the Brisbane International final two weeks ago has been a boost. “My ball striking at the moment is as good as it’s been in a long time,” he said.
Hewitt is 3-3 head-to-head with this afternoon’s opponent, 29-year-old Andreas Seppi, but the Italian has not won a match in 2014, while Hewitt is 5-0.
Federer, 4-1 this year, is no longer the force he was circa 2004-07, especially after exits to Sergiy Stakhovsky (Wimbledon) and Tommy Robredo (US Open) at his last two Grand Slams.
Still, the fleet, flowing Swiss should have enough to dispatch wild card James Duckworth of Sydney, a big-serving 21-year-old ranked No. 133.
It will be an historic occasion, with Federer setting the new consecutive Grand Slams mark. Federer records are generally associated with his playing skills and virtuosity, but this one relates to something different – fitness and durability. “I’m very proud of that,” he said about the streak, which began at the Australian Open in 2000. “I hope I can keep playing for a long time.”
If Federer had not missed the 1999 US Open after losing in the qualifying to his compatriot Ivo Heuberger, the streak might now be at 70.
Despite the statures of Hewitt and Federer, Tuesday is mainly about the Rod Laver Arena clash tonight between world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and Bernard Tomic.
The match-up caused Twitter tremors on the day of the draw and subsequently heaps of speculation. Nadal won the title in Doha two weeks ago, while Tomic reached the Sydney final last Saturday before being dismantled 6-3 6-1 by Juan Martin del Potro.
“Is not the best round I know to start a Grand Slam,” Nadal said, adding “(I) will try to do the right things in every moment to arrive in the first round with the competitive.”
Hewitt, 4-6 all-time against Nadal, weighed in with his thoughts on his compatriot’s chances.
“With Rafa for five sets, it turns into a physical battle,” Hewitt said.
“That’s what Rafa does to everyone out there. (But) I can definitely see the first couple of sets with Bernie, he’ll get his chances.”
Tomic’s Davis Cup captain Pat Rafter says the young Aussie has to be switched on – and stay there – from the opening point.
“Bernie in the past has been a little bit up and down in these matches. If Bernie plays and keeps that intensity, he’s going to be very difficult to beat. Rafa knows that. Rafa is not happy with his draw.”
Following Nadal-Tomic, Maria Sharapova will contend with the enterprising Bethanie Mattek-Sands, whom she has beaten in all five previous meetings.
First up on Tuesday, two-time defending women’s singles champion Victoria Azarenka plays No. 90 Joanna Larsson, the lone Swede in either of the singles draws.
TOM’S INTREPID TIPS
Nadal vs Tomic
In time, Tomic will be better suited for the three-out-of-five sets race course – but not yet, and not against Nadal. Rafa in four.
Hewitt vs Seppi
‘Rusty’ has worked too hard to stumble here against Seppi. Hewitt in three.
Federer vs Duckworth
Sydneysider Duckworth turns 22 in a week and has never before played a top-10 opponent, let alone a living legend like Federer. The Swiss in three.
Sharapova vs Mattek-Sands
Mattek-Sands and her long socks is full value for entertainment – but only for one set against Sharapova. Sharapova in three.
Azarenka vs Larsson
Larsson got four games against Azarenka the last time they played (2011 US Open). More this time would be success. Vika in two.
Petkovic def. Rybarikova
A competitive match-up – Rybarikova (No. 33) and Petkovic (No. 40) – but the German has shown better form in 2014. Petkovic in three.
Nishikori vs Matosevic
Inspired by new coach Michael Chang, the Japanese rolls over inconsistent Aussie Matosevic. Nishikori in three.
Cibulkova vs Schiavone
It has to be youth, Cibulkova (24), over experience, Schiavone (33), in a match-up of diminutive, clever shotmakers. Cibulkova in three.