Australian Open 2016: Lleyton Hewitt defeats countryman James Duckworth

Lleyton Hewitt defeated Sam Duckworth. Photo: Eddie Jim Swan song goes on: Lleyton Hewitt celebrates his win over James Duckworth. Photo: Eddie Jim

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This was the ideal, made-for-tv choreography of the beginning of a farewell tour. An Aussie champion, another Aussie over the net, a challenging enough game for wild fist pumps, then a comfortable win.

Forget for a moment this was the 129th ranked player against the 308th … on a packed centre court. And the 308th ranked player was the one everyone came to see.

It was Lleyton Hewitt and it went as Lleyton Hewitt would hve asked in his last Australian Open, and last ever tournament. A three set victory  (7-6, 6-2, 6-4) but a battle none the less, and his John Farnham like farewell tour encoring into another round.

“Live to fight another couple days. That’s good,” Hewitt said.

“I felt pretty good. You know, I was pretty pumped up before I went on. You know, I think I was able to block out everything else once I was out there. Obviously you get asked the same questions for quite a few months leading into this tournament, then it’s there, and you don’t fully know how you’re going to react until you’re out there on the match court.”

Hewitt, the former number one and dual grand slam winner, is not, at 34 years of age and in his last tournament, a serious contender for this tournament. This was more about the ride and seeing how long he can squeeze it out. David Ferrer is next so perhaps it will be not that long.

“I give myself a fighting chance. It’s going to be tough, I know that. But I feel like I’m hitting the ball well enough to go out there and give him a good run,” he added.

For now it was also about indulging the moment, for him and for those who like to watch him – of which there are yet many.

It felt more like a beachside caravan park on Australia Day than centre court: Aussie champion draped in Aussie Flag shirt, a Jimmy Barnes anthem for warm up, more Aussie flags adorning any unclaimed corner of space, F1 driver Mark Webber in Hewitt’s box. Oi oi oi.

Hewitt hasn’t always enjoyed universal popularity, but in what could be his last ever tennis match there was a lot of love for Lleyton.

Even from Duckworth who wrestled the line of wishing to be respectful to a man he had idolised and souring Hewitt’s moment. Duckworth was three years old when Hewitt first screamed ‘come on’ on these courts.

He generously applauded each of Hewitt’s good shots, of which there were many, for Duckworth presents as a gentlemanly player though perhaps he is also aware of his opponent’s next job as Davis Cup captain. But he was also unprepared to play the patsy. When Hewitt went two sets up and appeared likely to canter to victory, Duckworth took the game to the veteran and claimed a break of serve. A fourth set loomed.

Hewitt would almost have appreciated it – he likes the long game. He made a career of winning five set matches. Indeed it was when he started to lose those five setters – all three of Hewitt’s grand slam appearances last year ended in five set defeats – that he realised his time was nigh. He was proving able to go the distance but not get over the line.

“He is the Jimmy Connors of our time, a relentless competitor,” Wally Masur suggested in commentary.

Thus Duckworth taking a break of serve from him in the third set and pushing Hewitt offered the glimpse of Hewitt the fighter, without the game actually going five sets.

“That third set I had to dig deep and make a lot of balls to try to get back into it. He raised his game. I was kind of waiting for him to just dip off a little bit there in the third set. Eventually it happened,” he said.

Duckworth might have a ranking nearly 200 below Hewitt, but he did need a wildcard to get into the tournament and, despite his gusto, he needed a prayer to go further than Hewitt in the first round.

The first set was an hour long jostle ending Hewitt’s way in a tie break. The next Hewitt won more comfortably. Duckworth rallied to push Hewitt until victory came with his signature top spin lob.

Hewitt will be back here as a commentator and marshalling the egos of the Davis Cup team, but after 20 years of coming here he will not be back as a player again.

“This is what I am going to miss most,” Hewitt said after his victory, eyes to the crowd.

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