Hewitt, Williams begin the long climb backBy Richard Hinds
January 21, 2004
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Oscar Wilde wasn't much of a tennis man, so it must have been Fred Stolle who coined the phrase. But on centre court at Melbourne Park yesterday, the words held special significance: "The only thing harder than being the world No. 1 is becoming world No. 1 again."
For Venus Williams and Lleyton Hewitt, this Australian Open provides an even greater challenge than usual. By winning the title for the first time, both can reassert themselves on the game itself and prove the setbacks that helped swell their rankings to unsightly double figures last year were temporary aberrations.
As it turned out, the only temporary aberrations on the Rod Laver Arena yesterday were their overwhelmed opponents Cecil Mamiit and Ashley Harkleroad. Should either or both the former No. 1s lift the trophy, it can truly be said that their triumphs sprang from humble beginnings.
The one memorable part of Hewitt's mauling of qualifier Mamiit was its unusual and premature end. In an incident sure to feature on every sporting bloopers show, the 27-year-old American ran into the umpire's chair and twisted his ankle while running down a set point.
After about 10 minutes of treatment, and some impressive grimacing, Mamiit gamely hopped his way through the first game of the third set, which he won with a neat drop shot, then called it a day. He could thus claim to have quit while he was ahead, in the set at least. But, having been munched in the first two by the increasingly impressive Hewitt, 6-2 6-4, no one was left in any doubt about what would have happened had the American not been injured.
Rather, given this was the third consecutive match in which Hewitt's opponent has failed to finish - Martin Verkerk and Carlos Moya both withdrew at the Sydney International - we were left to ponder what fate awaits the easygoing Slovak Karol Kucera, the next man to face the curse of Hewitt. A tweaked hammy? A racquet in the groin?
Not that the ultra-competitive Hewitt would buy into the joke. "Yeah, I've been winning in every match, though," he said, when reminded of his good fortune.
As for the type of curses usually associated with Hewitt, yesterday there were none. He is hitting the ball sweetly and while he might not be getting full-scale match practice, yesterday's brief two-setter in stifling heat ensured his precious reserves of energy were conserved for the battles ahead.
Given this was Williams's first real match since the Wimbledon final in July, her 6-2, 6-1 victory over the supposedly promising Harkleroad was remarkably one-sided. Of course, the gap between the best women players and the pack is measured in light years. But either Williams is much better prepared than many had expected or Harkleroad is not quite the talent some believe.
Harkleroad suffered the disadvantage of watching her fiance Alex Bogomolov jnr mesmerised by Roger Federer on centre court immediately before walking out for her own match.
But the best-not-to-mention difference between the two Americans was their fitness. Despite her long absence, Williams looked in great shape. With her stomach protruding from an unflatteringly tight pink outfit, Harkleroad more resembled what other females like to call "a real woman".
Which is not to say she needs to subscribe to the Daniela Hantuchova low-calorie oxygen diet, merely that nature may have handed the 18-year-old Harkleroad a tough battle to stay in the shape required to play her exhausting back-court game, particularly against a hitting machine such as Williams.
While Harkleroad ran up and down the baseline doggedly, Williams had one of those days when, in cricket terms, it is almost impossible to set a field for her. Either the ball whizzed by for a winner or ballooned over the baseline. Williams in top form is very much the mistress of her own destiny.
Despite a scare when she turned an ankle in the first set, Williams clearly has a significant chance to win her first grand slam title since the 2001 US Open, especially with sister Serena at home.
Given she has lost five of the past eight grand slam finals to Serena, you could not blame Venus for being glad about that. But, apparently, that is not the case.
"Not the same, not the same," said Williams about Serena's absence. "I'm alone in the room. The phone's not ringing because her phone is always ringing non-stop."
As usual, the Williams inquisition turned to more important matters such as what she was wearing. The rock on her finger wasn't an engagement ring, she said, but because the finger was swollen she couldn't get it off.
And the big diamond earrings? "Accessorise, accessorise, accessorise," she said. "I'm just a regular girl, I really am."