Almanac Tennis: The five-set specialist (it’s how he likes it)

by Ross Green


Your first serve sailed over the baseline. You could instantly see your opponent relax. This kid’s a chump. But you didn’t bat an eyelid and set to work. You weren’t here to make up the numbers. ‘Come on!’ had entered the Australian tennis lexicon. And immediately, Sergi Bruguera, dual French Open champion, had a fight on his hands in the first round of the 1997 Australian Open.

You lost 6-3 6-4 6-3. You were 15, and the youngest ever to qualify for an Australian Open (no wild card required).

The articles, interviews and video tributes will pour in for you over the next few days and weeks. And there will be many people weighing in on your storied career – the defeat of a Brooke-Shields-version-Agassi in Adelaide, your rise to number 1, how lucky you were to fall between the Sampras/Agassi and Federer/Nadal/Djokovic dynasties, the Davis Cup triumphs, how much better you could have been if you’d had a big serve, whether you were Chang 2.0, how you preferred to lob rather than drill a passing shot, and how you singlehandedly kept Australian tennis afloat for over 10 years.

Oh, and just how on earth you manage to front up fit and firing for your home Grand Slam every single year.

The list of your Australian contemporaries reads like a who’s who and who’s not of Australian tennis – Rafter, Philipoussis, Woodbridge, Woodforde, Fromberg, Arthurs, Ilie, Larkham, Luczak, Jones, Reid, Healy, Tebbutt and countless others, who we either parochially urged on to win the big one or whimsically wished could just make the second round, hopefully the second week, at Melbourne Park.

You played against – and defeated – tennis royalty: Becker, Sampras, Agassi, Courier, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic. Whether they were in their primes or not doesn’t matter. You can only beat who is in front of you. And you did just that, all the while setting the work ethic and shot selection bar for the new brigade.

You routinely took care of business against seriously good players like Safin, Roddick, Krajicek, Rios, Martin, Corretja, Korda, Kafelnikov, Kuerten, Ferrer, Ferreira, Ferrero, Haas, Henman, Ivanisevic, Davydenko, Berdych, Bagdhatis, Tsonga and on and on.

And here you are, still standing. Heck, you just pushed Murray to five tense sets in last year’s Davis Cup semi-final.

On top of all of this was the personal war you waged with seemingly every Argentine player on Tour, starting with your drubbing of Nalbandian in the 2002 Wimbledon Final. As well as Nalbandian, there were deliciously feisty Tour and Davis Cup matches against Gaston Gaudio, Guillermo Canas, Guillermo Coria and, of course, Juan Ignacio Chela and the infamous spitting incident at the 2005 Australian Open.

I wonder where Juan Ignacio is now?

Jesus, you had some great wins. The 2001 US Open, 2002 Wimbledon win and that crazy third round match here in 2008, where you finally dispatched Bagdhatis around 4.00am. WTF!

But of all the wins, one stands out.

Nalbandian. 2005 Australian Open quarter-final. Let’s face it – you were done. From two sets up to two sets all, and he had you cold deep in the 5th, with you continually having to hold serve to stay in the match (not your strong suit). You had a mysterious injury. Midnight was approaching. Hope was fading. Oh, and it was Australian Day (of course it bloody was – the perfect script).

You won 10-8 in the 5th. Somehow.

If anyone could make a match an (at times unnecessary) epic, it was you. Five sets was your go – the Rocky or plucky rover in you.

To be honest, I found it hard to warm to you at times – I dislike unnecessary antics and am wary of the sort of precociousness that sometimes comes with talented youngsters (and their very involved parents). But these are minor quibbles, and say more about me than you.

All we ask for as sports fans is that professional sportspeople give their all. That they play hard. That they work their arse off and make the most of whatever talent they have.

That they leave nothing on the table. Every match. Every season. Throughout their career.

After 20 years, your table is utterly bare.


Now, Come on!


  1. Without a shadow of a doubt Lleyton Hewitt has clearly been the best Australian male tennis player since John Newcombe. Early on he was renowned for his performances in five setters, rarely losing one. For many years he was almost unbeatable in matches that went the distance.

    However that is all a long way back. When was the last time he won a five setter? His record over five set matches since 2009-10 is the exact opposite of the years prior to that. Despite this criticism he is a fair dinkum champion and it would be great to see him claim a few scalps in this farewell.

    C’mon !!!!!!


  2. Patrick O'Brien says

    I’ve always found it hard to separate Hewitt from John Howard. Same with Matthew Hayden, actually. But as you say, probably says more about me.

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