By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009
After winning particularly challenging games at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic on Wednesday evening, Lleyton Hewitt pumped his fist with vigor and released an adrenaline-driven shriek toward a corner of the grandstand filled with his supporters. Those fans responded with an Australian chant for one of the finest Australians in the history of tennis:
"Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!"
The homage came during a 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 second-round win over Israel's Dudi Sela, but it is only heard at the Legg Mason when Hewitt is playing. He is the lone Australian in this year's field. Hewitt advanced to play Juan Martín del Potro, whom he upset in the second round at Wimbledon earlier this summer. Hewitt was the only Australian in the 128-man field in that tournament, too.
The decline of Australian men's singles players makes Hewitt the country's lone hope while he returns from 2008 hip surgery in an attempt to add to a legacy that already includes U.S. Open and Wimbledon titles and the world's top ranking. Hewitt also won in Washington in 2004.
At his peak, Hewitt was the standout of a handful of promising countrymen and continued a reputation set by such Australian greats as Rod Laver and John Newcombe.
Now, Hewitt admits there is no one currently ready to emerge in the Australian pipeline. With the U.S. Open approaching later this month, discussion is often centered on who will become the United States' next great tennis star. Hewitt feels this plight in his native land, as well.
"It's the same thing, but we're struggling a little more than America," Hewitt said. "It's been a battle."
He was optimistic when Australia reached the Davis Cup finals in four of five years, from 1999 to 2003, including titles on each end of the period. The teams included players such as Hewitt, Mark Philippoussis, Patrick Rafter, Wayne Arthurs and Todd Woodbridge -- all among the world's better players at one point.
"We haven't been able to produce any great players since," Hewitt said.
Hewitt could not identify anyone who could possibly challenge for such a distinction. He said to think another Australian could reach the world's top 10 would be a stretch, and even cracking the top 50 or top 80 is ambitious.
Even Hewitt needed to resuscitate his career. He missed last year's U.S. Open while recovering from surgery. At 28, Hewitt is no longer motivated by the world rankings. The motivation instead is winning grand slams.
Hewitt came close to reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon before falling to Andy Roddick. His entire purpose this week in Washington is to build for the U.S. Open.
"I still feel like there's a little bit of unfinished business in grand slams, too," Hewitt said. "When I'm playing my best on whatever surface, it's over five sets. It's taken a lot of hard work to get back to this stage of my career after coming back from surgery."
As he advances in Washington -- and especially when he reaches New York -- he will hear those Australian chants. He insists tennis is just as popular as ever, even if the number of players fans can cheer for dwindles.
"When it comes around the Australian Open, it's one of the most exciting months of the year," Hewitt said. "Tennis is a traditional sport. We're one of the first countries to have grand slams, to play Davis Cups. It is important that we have a whole group of whole new guys coming through, and hopefully we're able to do it soon."