Alicia Molik and Lleyton Hewitt were born 27 days apart in Adelaide, once shared the mixed doubles court as young western suburbs clubmates, and excelled as local junior champions of the same sport. As personalities, one is casual, relaxed, laconic, the other more intense. But it is only through on-court comparisons with the famously fast achiever that Molik has paled, however relatively.
Hewitt won his first tournament at 16, beating Andre Agassi when the American's poster was still on Hewitt's bedroom wall. He was the youngest-ever world No.1. By the age of 21, he had collected two grand slam singles titles and played in a winning Davis Cup team. As the measure by which Australian player development is judged, Hewitt has set an impossibly high bar.
Molik's rise has been more gradual, more conventional. She finished 2001 in the top 50, and has for some time been a steady performer on the women's circuit, but it has only been in the past year that the gap has really started to close. Now, as Hewitt's ranking has dipped to No.17 through his recent tournament hiatus, Molik has shed her underachiever's label to close in on the top-20 territory no Australian-born woman has traversed since Wendy Turnbull in the mid-1980s.
Molik is the Australian No.1, Fed Cup anchor and Hopman Cup representative, at the end of her best season.
Indeed, two freakishly identical foot injuries at either end of 2003 were unable to prevent the 22-year-old from achieving a career-best ranking of 34th, one spot above her year-end position. The goal had been for a top-30 finish, which would almost certainly have been achieved had she not suffered a plantar fascia tear in her left foot during a Luxembourg quarter-final against Chanda Rubin in October, forcing Molik to dust off her crutches and lop the final two events from her schedule.
Almost exactly the same injury to Molik's right foot, only "a touch worse", had caused her to retire from the opening round of the Australian Open, the grand slam she had entered in rare form after an exceptional Hopman Cup - where she partnered Hewitt and upset two top-20 players while ranked 94th herself - and first career title in Hobart in the week leading up to the Open.
"It's a very unusual injury first of all, and to have the same injury twice, especially in the same year, is pretty amazing," said Molik, who only regained full on-court mobility last week. "But thankfully, the second one came at the end of the year; it could have come midway through."
She has also come through one successful rehabilitation, and thus is aware of how to manage a second. Molik could do little weight-bearing on her left leg for more than three weeks after Luxembourg, and has since limited impact training in favour of cycling and swimming. Her earliest hitting was done standing still; Molik reasoning that stationary practice was better than none at all.
"It's funny. When you're in amongst it all year, you can't wait to have a break and then when you're forced to have a break, you can't wait to get back out there," she said.
Molik's coach is Sydney-based David Taylor, and she works with Victorian coach, osteopath and former top-100 player Louise Field during breaks at her new Melbourne home. A multi-talented 182-centimetre athlete who kicks a drop punt as well as she bowls a cricket ball, Molik's versatile, exceptional serve - coupled with powerful groundstrokes and natural serve-volley tendencies - is what sets her apart.
"She's got the game that's really a lot different to a lot of the girls out there," said Field.
"It's really heading toward more how the men play: really heavy groundstrokes and she's got an amazing kick serve, which very few of the girls can do, so from that point of view, you think, well, she just needs to get a few really good wins under her belt and everyone will get scared of her. The sky's the limit, really.
"The other girls aren't practised against Alicia's style of game. The top players are playing against quite a flat ball and so when they play someone who does it differently, it takes them by surprise. This year, she was really unlucky not to finish top 30, and from being ranked 90, it's a really good effort. So if she can keep that same intensity up next year, I really think that she's got a lot of great possibilities."
Molik considers herself top-10 material, has top-20 ambitions by the end of 2004 and admitted that where she had once been content with playing well against the best players, nothing short of victory will now do. In the past year, she has lost only a handful of times to lower-ranked players, and has gradually built the confidence and self-belief that Hewitt, for example, has never lacked.
"I guess I just have a better understanding of my game and what I need to do to win," said Molik, whose April effort in reaching consecutive WTA Tour finals was the first by an Australian woman in 16 years. "I've been a little confused in the past as to the right direction to take, but things are clearer now and I'm a little bit more clinical about the way I go about my tennis and play and construct points.
"I've been building on my tennis every single year. I think this was a good year, I don't think it was a great year, and I finished 35. I still think I could have done a lot more, so I guess that's a positive going into next year."
One barrier yet to be breached is the fourth round of a grand slam, a stage Molik has not managed in 20 majors, despite five third-round appearances. A seeding would help, of course, as it would clear her early path of the top 16, and there is a chance Molik may be among the seeded 32 at Melbourne Park next month for the first time.
"I'm not happy making third rounds all the time, I can assure you, but it's difficult. I have struggled. I haven't made it past the third round, as you've mentioned, so I'm hoping to take it a step further, and I guess why not at the Aussie Open? That's a goal of mine."
Molik will return to next month's Hopman Cup as the undisputed Australian No.1, and has decided not to defend her Hobart title, feeling "ready to play in the bigger tournaments more often". Thus, her preferred destination is Sydney, where Hewitt will be one of the two local men's drawcards, but where Molik, among the women, will no longer be quite so far behind.
"Lleyton's Lleyton, he's been No.1 in the world; I haven't, obviously, but I'm doing the best that I can do," she said, reasonably. "Lleyton's very special, he's one of a kind, he's where he is for a reason and he's a huge inspiration. But everyone's different. I've only gone so fast, but I've really been working with my own coaches and developing my own game, in my own time."