Brisbane: Hewitt d. Federer
There is a lot that can be said about Roger Federer from this Brisbane final—his whiff on a second serve early on, a harbinger of what was possibly the worst set of tennis I've ever seen him play; his strong serving once that forgettable set had passed; a key shot in the third set he elected not to play but would land in—but I must begin with the resiliency of Lleyton Hewitt. The 32-year-old Aussie is a fixture on Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open, and each year that I watch him play an early-round night match in the wee hours of the morning, I leave confident that it's the last time he'll fill the stands in Melbourne. Why does he go on, I sometimes wonder? His ranking is nowhere near that of his contemporary Federer, his game can occasionally look obsolete, and he always appears utterly drained after his customary five-set war with his unfortunate opponent. But every year, Hewitt returns, and you don't know how he does it, but he gets the job done. Rusty? We should call him Santa.
Hewitt's resiliency was also on display today, and again I'm left with the same feelings—of admiration, respect, and sentimentality—after his 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 win. He wasn't tested all that much early on, but as Federer slowly put a deplorable first set behind him, the tide began to turn. This was evident in rallies but more so on serve, with Federer mowing through his service games while Hewitt was constantly being tested. There was an exception with Federer serving at 3-4 in the second, as Hewitt earned a break point with a searing, running forehand down the line, to the surprise of everyone. It was a Federer-like display. But Federer did that two better by striking two aces to dispel the threat, then broke Hewitt and hit three more aces before squaring this match at one set apiece. Hewitt may not have ever seen Federer more vulnerable, but in a flash, it seemed his best chance had vanished.
It seemed that it was only a matter of time for that theory to be proven, based on the opening games of the third set. Again, Federer's service games were a breeze; Hewitt's were an odyssey. But they were navigated by a seasoned and skilled captain. Hewitt saved five break points in his first two service games, winning a 10-minute game in the process. Later, up 4-2, he'd save two more break points; Federer was 0 for 7 on them in the deciding set. Hewitt also contended with a series of questionable foot-fault calls, an untimely time violation penalty, and a crowd that featured plenty of red-and-white shirts and "RF" logos.
In spite of all this, Hewitt not only remained true to his style of play, he went out of his comfort zone when needed. He played more aggressively than usual, particularly when Federer's form rose in the second set. He had an appetite for winners and a taste for coming forward, including on match point. Of the many clichés you could say about this contest, one that I was just waiting to hear was that Hewitt "would have to win the match"(it was indeed spoken on the broadcast). He did just that, and he'll come into this year's Australian Open with the confidence—and not just the résumé—of a champion.
As for Federer: His first 27 minutes of play was some of the poorest I've watched, and those voicing their opinions on Twitter seemed to agree. Nearly every game featured a cover-your-eyes shank, and nearly every shot was a trial—I truly had no feel on what he'd do next. Worst of all, Federer needed to play aggressively against Hewitt, who didn't do anything spectacular early on, but put every ball back. The combination was unsightly bad.
A temporary reprieve from play after the set helped Federer, but what really freed him from malaise were two shots, his serve (which was also a lifesaver in his semifinal win over Jeremy Chardy), and his slice backhand, which allowed him to play longer points. Federer was removed from the bad patch by the end of the second set, and by the third, Hewitt was the player who was struggling. The first three games of the deciding set took nearly as long as the entire first set.
But it was a critical miss—in judgment—by Federer that led to Hewitt gaining the ultimate advantage. Serving at 1-2, Federer elected not to play a Hewitt shot, which caught the baseline. The Aussie reached 15-40, broke for a 3-1 lead, and held the rest of the way, despite some resistance. Federer is now 18-9 against Hewitt lifetime, but has lost the last two finals they've played (2010 Halle).