MIAMI—Former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt won his 600th ATP World Tour match the other day here at the Miami Masters 1000. Perhaps to prevent the honor from going to his head, he was obliged to face current world No. 1 Rafael Nadal tonight if he hoped to log win No. 601.
Nobody said the life of an elite pro was an easy one. It disallows even stalwarts like 33-year-old Hewitt, or 13-time Grand Slam champ Nadal, to rest on their laurels for an appreciable interval. As Nadal, lapsing into a ruminative mood the other day, observed: “Tennis has a very negative thing, that is when you win you don’t have time for celebrate. Few days again you are under pressure and you need to be ready again.”
Hewitt was ready. Truth be told, Hewitt was born ready. And he’s remained ready despite all those miles he’s logged with those spindly legs, miles so taxing that he risked a previously untried surgery on one of his big toes, just one of five trips he’s taken in recent years, cloaked in a flimsy cotton gown, into an operating theater.
Hewitt was ready, as always, to take his punishment like a man. The inevitable bitterness of the potion in this case was slightly relieved by the quality of his opponent—and, perhaps, a vague awareness of the fact that his own zeal and pugnacious enthusiasm has provided him with a sort of fountain of youth. Does any 33-year-old look so much like and play like a kid, duckbill cap worn backwards on his head, leading with his chin, legs seemingly wobbly and about to fold as he makes contact with his forehand, the patent leather black shoes he now wears shining under the stadium lights as if he were appearing in a school recital.
None of that was enough against Nadal, of course. Through the first half-dozen games of this match it seemed that Nadal had been put in Hewitt’s path less as a test than a punishment for the insolence he showed winning many of those 600 matches with a game that the game has passed by, and not just recently.
Many of those 600 wins had a lot less to do with game than Hewitt being game, but alas, that’s something Nadal also knows a thing or two about. From the outset, Hewitt was required to chase Nadal's piledriving forehands like a kid trying to catch a bottle rocket, lured so far over to his backhand side that Rafa was inevitably able to unload into all that space left on the Aussie's forehand flank.
The first “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi” chant rose from the bleachers as Hewitt was trying to claw his way out of a 0-4 deficit, hoping to save his nation from having to declare a national day of mourning. For just the other day, Hewitt’s countryman Bernard Tomic lost his first-round match in just 28 minutes, a new ATP record. But to have Australia's greatest player since Pat Rafter, a former No. 1 and Grand Slam champion twice over, duplicate the feat or even surpass it would have been tragedy on a grand scale.
By the time Hewitt lost the first set, 6-1, in just 24 minutes, the battle cry of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie,” rendered this time with a noticeable lack of conviction, was greeted with silence—as if anyone who was even thinking about shouting the familiar reply would have been identified and escorted out to a van with rubber walls. Aussie Oi Vey.
It can be a cruel sport, this tennis.
But Hewitt has seen the elephant. He lost that first set badly, but even when his ears are ringing and that backhand just isn’t up to the job when challenged by the Nadal forehand, Hewitt still has his wits about him.
“No,” Hewitt would reply later, in a much more amenable tone than perhaps you or I would have mustered. “I’ve been around a long time, mate.”
Thus, Hewitt pulled up his socks high and tight on the changeover. And after Nadal ripped through another hold to open the second set, Hewitt survived a 30-all and held serve, celebrating the feat with an angry shake of his racquet.
Reflecting on the first set, Hewitt would say, “I left too many balls hanging for him. That made him able to dictate. I was caught between being too passive and too aggressive.”
The aggressive half of his equation worked much better in the second set, and the men produced entertaining, high-quality rallies spoiled only slightly by the uneasy feeling that there was no way Hewitt could win them. Nadal’s consistency is obvious and needs no comment, but there’s a more dynamic way to look at that bloodless analysis: The guy never lets you down. He almost never makes a hash of a rally with a really stupid, feckless, or puzzling shot that makes it seem like the whole point was a waste of time. Nadal makes tennis logical, which in the hands of lesser men and women it most certainly is not.
Unfortunately for Hewitt, Nadal remained in character even as Hewitt lifted his game to appealing heights. Hewitt never did fight his way to a break point—the closest he came was deuce, whereupon Nadal bombarded him with another series of detonations that ceased only when Rusty drove a forehand into the net. The next point was a replay of that rally, only this time the ball that the over-taxed Hewitt drilled into the net was a backhand. Given the level at which Nadal was playing, and at which Hewitt was surviving, it seemed unfair to call those misses errors.
Nadal finally broke through again in the eighth game, by which time the wear was telling on Hewitt’s precision as well as his nerves. From 5-3, Nadal served it out with ease.
It’s hard to say which part of Nadal’s game was most impressive tonight. For my money, it was his serve. He successfully converted 62 percent of his first serves, which is good if not great, but his ball had tremendous action and it kept Hewitt back on his heels all evening. Given all that Nadal’s been through lately, that had to feel good.
“I’ve been feeling better with my back for two weeks now, so I was able to do normal movement and I’m able to practice a normal amount,” he explained. His mind remained on Indian Wells, but moved to a different track. “I didn’t play the right way at Indian Wells, I was much better here. I was going to the backhand to open up the forehand, and playing high and deep and changing the direction of the ball at the good time. I was very satisfied with this.”
Given how severely Nadal had been beating Hewitt in the first set, I had to ask if he didn’t feel even a fleeting moment of pity, or remorse. “I can’t think that way,” Nadal replied. “I respect and admire him so much. He still is playing with so much passion and love for the game.”
That Nadal didn’t let up on Hewitt for a moment appeared cruel, but it’s really the utmost compliment he can pay a rival. I think Hewitt knows that, as would any other great player in his shoes. Rafa, Rafa, Rafa, Oi, Oi, Oi.