MELBOURNE, Australia – Lleyton Hewitt never enjoyed a particularly warm-and-fuzzy relationship with the Australian public.
Yet the crowds at his home major this week can appreciate the 30-year-old, often-injured veteran approaching the end of his career — a gritty firebrand competing in a record 16th consecutive Australian Open.
"It's fantastic," Hewitt said of playing in front of the raucous home crowd. "Feelings like that you can't buy. Until you're one of the players out there experiencing it, it is a massive adrenaline rush."
Between points, pockets of fans in Australia's national colors of green and gold stood and serenaded Hewitt with songs ("If you love Lleyton Hewitt, clap your hands!" clap, clap). Plenty of chants involved his nickname 'Rusty,' given by former coach Darren Cahill in reference to the youngest Griswold son in the "National Lampoon" films.
When Hewitt's final shot clipped the tape and barely rolled over the net to give him the third set, the crowd rose to their feet, arms in the air.
An injured — and deflated — Roddick retired moments later because of a pulled hamstring.
Hewitt was undoubtedly hoping for a couple of magical moments after battling through injuries over the past two years.
After needing a wild card just to get into the event because his ranking has fallen to No. 181, Hewitt is through to the third round — his best at a Grand Slam since making the Round of 16 at Wimbledon in 2010.
He'll face a difficult opponent in 25th-ranked Milos Raonic of Canada, who's only dropped serve twice in 81 games this year. If he gets through that match, No. 1 Novak Djokovic could await in the quarterfinals.
"In the last four years I've had five surgeries, and last year I played just two Grand Slams and two Davis Cup ties," Hewitt said. "I came in here with nothing to lose."
Hewitt, a two-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1, may be years away from his peak form — and a real long-shot to win his home slam — but this hasn't diminished his desire to compete.
In fact, he's entered in the doubles competition with friend and fellow 30-something Peter Luczak at Melbourne Park, simply because "it's a bit of fun to go out there."
But his biggest concern these days is how long his body will hold up. Hewitt has faced numerous career-threatening injuries in the past few years, requiring surgery after surgery, and each time struggled to come back.
After surgery on his left hip in late 2008, Hewitt injured his right hip during a match in early 2010 and went under the knife for a second time. That sidelined him for three months. Then in September of that year, he injured his hand during a Davis Cup match and sat out the rest of the season.
Last year was even more dismal. Hewitt underwent foot surgery in March, returned briefly in the summer and withdrew from the U.S. Open. He missed the rest of the year when the foot began to bother him again.
He only won nine matches all year. But he's enjoying the start of this season.
"I'll play with my heart on my sleeve and see where it gets me," Hewitt said.