Australian Open 2015: From Hewitt to Kokkinakis, the home stars thrill

Home favourite Lleyton Hewitt reaches the second round of the Australian Open in Melbourne

Lleyton Hewitt may not be the oldest man in the Australian Open singles draw: that honour goes to Ivo Karlovic.

But at six months older than long-standing rival and friend Roger Federer—Hewitt will be 34 next month—he still has an awful lot of tennis in his body. All the more so because he has been the scampering, full-blooded terrier of the tour since he burst into his first Australian Open before his 16th birthday.

Taking to court on first Tuesday in Melbourne, the ever-inspiring Hewitt was about to play a record 19th consecutive Open in front of an adoring crowd. Hewitt may have won at Wimbledon and the US Open, may have reached the final here in 2005, may have finished 2001 as the youngest player and first Australian No1 in the history of ATP rankings, and he may have bustled and roared through countless operations to hips, ankles and toes, but he is still standing, and his passionate public cannot get enough of him.

Now ranked 87, he is here to enjoy the beat of that crowd and the thrill of the battle, not because he has a realistic hope of winning the Major that eluded him. For it is likely to be one of the new Australians now packing out the draw who will end the home nation’s wait for the first local champion since Mark Edmondson took the title in 1976.

That is not to say Hewitt is not keen to win as many matches as his battered body and firey spirit will allow. And he notched up his first in Melbourne in three years with a four-set win over a Chinese man nine years his junior and 100 places lower in the rankings, Ze Zhang, 6-3, 1-6, 6-0, 6-4.

It was classic Hewitt, too, willing himself to regain dominance after he being battered by Zhang in the second set. Hewitt scowled and roared his way to victory in two hours and 20 minutes, and next plays fellow 33-year-old, Benjamin Becker.

The veteran Aussie was asked about the motivation to keep coming back for more: “The motivation, the buzz is still there, absolutely. You know, I love walking through the corridors, the practice sessions on Rod Laver Arena, the week leading up to the Slam. The start of the Australian Open, there’s always a real buzz around anyway. But this is one of the things I really miss when I do eventually retire.”

Inevitable, then, that he should be asked the ‘R’ question, since rumours have abounded in the last year or so. But he was giving nothing away:
“I get asked that every day, so…”

This year, though, the Australian vibe is a little different for both Hewitt and the fans. For he is one of no fewer than 10 compatriots in the main draw, and seven of them are now through to the second round.

Better still, six of the men are from the ‘class of the 90s’, aged 23 and under. And the two teenagers in the field made fireworks of their own in their opening matches.

The ‘Special Ks’, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Nick Kyrgios, do stand out. Good mates, they have the kind of youthful exuberance you might expect from talented teenagers doing what they do best in front of a huge home crowd. Both stand well over 1.90 metres tall, both have big serves, big forehands, and charisma to spare.

They set alight Melbourne Park on Monday night, helped not a little by sporting bright dayglo yellow—and in Kokkinakis’s case, mottled yellow and bright pink.

Playing at the same time, they had their fans in full voice in two dramatic five-setters. The No53 ranked Kyrgios, the elder of the two and already a Wimbledon quarter-finalist, had a tough enough opponent in Federico Delbonis, ranked 62. But just after midnight, the Australian took the win, 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-3.

The 18-year-old No 147, Kokkinakis, was even more impressive, playing an all-court thriller against the 11th seed Ernests Gulbis. The young player saved four match points to win 5-7, 6-0, 1-6, 7-6(2), 8-6, after more than four hours.

Should anyone doubt his joy, he jogged the entire perimeter of showcourt three, high-fiving everyone he could reach. He summed it up: “Best win of my career.”

As luck would have it, Kokkinakis next plays another Australian, Sam Groth—ranked 82 and a huge hitter of the ball. Meanwhile, Kyrgios will compete in the aces department with Karlovic.

With Bernard Tomic, James Duckworth and Marinko Matosevic—against, incidentally, Andy Murray—also playing Wednesday, the attention, for now at least, is not entirely on Hewitt. And he is enjoying that.

“Obviously the young guys have had a lot of pressure and expectation on them [and] they’ve handled it really well. I think for the most part those three guys, Tomic, Kyrgios and Kokkinakis, have big futures. All three like playing on the big stage, which is really important. I’ve seen that in Davis Cup now. [But] they’ve got to keep kicking on now. It is only the first round. They’ve got to keep taking their opportunities when they [are] presented.

“It’s great for Australian tennis. For a period, obviously when Pat [Rafter] retired, there wasn’t a lot else that could go deep into a Grand Slam. Where now, these guys, they’ve had little flashes in the pan of quarter-finals in Slams. But they’ve got to try to do it on a more consistent basis now.”

One thing is certain: Australia will enjoy every moment of this story until their last man falls.

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