Rusty brings spirit of Rochie to new breed
WHEN Lleyton Hewitt delivered the bad news to the media alongside Adelaide's river Torrens on Friday morning he was forthright and to the point.
Australia's star men, Nick Kyrgios and Alex de Minaur were out, he said, a damaged wrist for the big fella and an aggravated abdominal strain for the younger chap. They would not be facing Brazil this week.
It was, metaphorically, a kick in the guts too, but the Davis Cup captain didn't flinch. John Peers and South Australia's Alex Bolt would step in, he said, but it passed over the heads of everybody, Mr K was the topic of real interest and Hewitt knew it.
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The (mandatory) timing of the Australia squad announcement last Tuesday didn't help, he said, Kyrgios and de Minaur were always a doubt, but we all wanted them to play. It was an explanation, not an excuse, and all the better for it.
If Hewitt was in turmoil, he didn't show it.
This is a man who dedicated eight weeks in 2003 to preparing for Australia's Davis Cup final against Spain. He thinks, sweats and bleeds green and gold. Always has.
Yet while the Lleyton Hewitt of 2020 - he turned 39 last week - is as impassioned as ever, there is a reflective and very structured side to him also. Yes, this is a squad in his image, but there is far more to it than that, including one 74-year-old rarely seen (he is Adeilade to work this week) with 16 major titles and part of the furniture at most of Australia's Davis Cup ties over the past half century.
Tony Roche was first picked for the Davis Cup team in 1963 and was its coach when Adelaide's dual major champion was first called into the squad as the orange boy as a 15-year-old. Hewitt was hooked.
"Most of the time was spent running around picking up balls and towels, but it was soaking up the atmosphere and seeing how intense the practice was and what it meant to lay it on the line. I just loved the feel of that. It was a motivation to get better," Hewitt said.
"Then you had a guy like Rochie, who was doing so much for the team but spent as much time with the orange boys on the backcourts. When I was still playing, I loved having him around, he was the father figure of the team.
"While he is still motivated to get out there and help these guys we have to use him as much as possible. The way these guys listen to him, how he tells stories is so different to other coaches and there is a real respect for him from the young guys.
"Some of the personalities are totally different in my team, but when you get on court and Rochie is there you know what he expects, the standards, the team culture.
"All these young guys just can't get enough with Rochie on court, it the intensity he brings. Every session is tough, but there is a purpose."
But is the Davis Cup a priority still for today's generation? Hewitt doesn't flinch.
"It's hard to know, but that's what we're trying to work towards for sure, for some players more than others, everyone is different, it is where their careers are at.
"That's my goal, to get everyone within the squad and the young kids to look up to it and say that's what I want to do, and make it and the slams a priority at start of the season."
The elephant in the room though is the future of the 120-year-old competition - revamped last year with an 18- team finals format - a future Australia did its best to torpedo in January through the inaugural, and wildly successful, ATP Cup. Hewitt is unsure what lies ahead.
"For me, the Davis Cup in Madrid (November 2019) was disappointing, mainly because of the atmosphere. It was an event playing for your country, but you took out the core and the heart of what the Davis Cup was all about, the crowd involvement, playing home and away, 15,000 people cheering for or against you.
"It was knowing you had to be a tight-knit team. We have lost that. I couldn't be prouder of the boys and the effort they put in over the result we had over there, but the scheduling (very late finishes for Australia on consecutive days) was a nightmare, something they really have to look at."
The ATP Cup meanwhile was a great TV spectacle TV he said, capacity crowds and accompanying atmosphere making for a hugely successful event.
As expected from the arch fighter, losing is unwelcome wherever.
Happily, Hewitt knows from experience how to beat Brazil, albeit in more challenging circumstances than he will encounter at Memorial Drive this week.
In April 2001, Australia travelled to South America for a Davis Cup quarter-final on clay with a monumental stumbling block in Gustavo Kuerten, reigning French Open champion and just two months off another title in Paris. The tie was understandably held in his hometown, Florianopolis.
The odds of an Australian win would have been beyond steep, but Hewitt, on the cusp of his greatest 12 months as a player - he would win the US Open that September - pulled off one of his greatest wins, a victory that time and distance has sidelined. Arguably, for the man who turned out for his country in 43 ties, it is his most remarkable achievement.
"It's probably up there," says Hewitt, disingenuously perhaps. The story is worth revisiting.
"It's a hard one, as it's not seen that much and probably doesn't get talked about as much as, say, the Federer Davis Cup match for example, which was in Australia. Semi-final, two sets down and a break and all that," he said.
Some context is called for. Kuerten (nicknamed Guga), a folk hero in Brazil, was near unbeatable on clay at the time and world No. 1 to boot, although Hewitt would supplant him later that year.
"Not in my wildest dreams would I have thought I could beat him in straight sets in his backyard on clay, it was unbelievable."
But it happened, although not as envisaged.
Day one saw Pat Rafter face Kuerten in the opening match, with Hewitt scheduled to face Fernando Meligini, a clay courter who had made French Open quarters, immediately afterwards.
Hewitt tells the tale best.
"Pat played Guga in the first match. He was 2-1 down and forfeited with a slight injury and I remember going into my match and thinking the whole tie is on my neck here, if I lose this match they had three chances (to win one more match) and Guga is playing doubles and singles and it's going to be hard to come back.
"I was pretty proud how I went out there and it was 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, and that gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the weekend. I took absolute control of him and then we had a massive team meeting that night. They probably weren't thinking of me for the doubles, but Pat and me had played a few times together.
"But I think the biggest thing was how I handled the expectation and the crowd. The crowd was brutal, as bad as you can ever imagine. Because I had been out there, how I had played that day and won in that atmosphere, it wasn't going to bother me again and I believe that's why Fitzy (team captain John Fitzgerald) and Wally Masur ended up choosing me to play doubles."
So Hewitt and Rafter against Kuerten and Jaime Oncins it was.
"I think my kind of attitude was 'you are going to give it to me, so bring it on' and it rubbed off well with Pat and we ended up beating Guga and Oncins (this week's Brazil team captain) on three tie-breaks to set us up for 2-1 ahead."
The next match, the fourth of the tie, was critical, Hewitt versus Kuerten. There were other imponderables at play, in the back of Hewitt's mind was the thought that an injured Rafter might not shape up too well in the fifth and final match.
The South Australian needed to finish the tie and, just a few weeks out of his teens, felled the giant Brazilian (incidentally one of tennis' most popular players of the past 20 years) 7-6, 7-6, 7-6.
It is the team togetherness, spirit and fight that Hewitt recalls - and laments to a point - the most.
"That's what the Davis Cup has lost, that atmosphere and feeling. We stayed in a beautiful resort in Florianopolis and we gelled as a team," he said.
"It was a 45-minute drive each day, with police escorts front and back of our van to the match court, but on the team bus we felt no one else was there to support us and it was just this small group that had our backs.
"Now (with the abolition of home and away ties, other than the early qualifiers such as this week's tie) you don't get that and that's what's disappointing for my young players, that you don't get a chance to experience that.
"Some of my greatest memories are of some of those biggest wins a way from home. It makes you a lot closer because you have to have each other's backs."
This week's tie is unlikely to match that of 2001, but it matters deeply still.
A win will take Australia to the 18-team Davis Cup finals in Madrid in November.
Tennis Australia cannot countenance anything other than a victory.
Regardless, the result will not hinge on a lack of preparation or will.
"If you do all the right things and have the right people around it's amazing what Davis Cup can do, because rankings get thrown out of the window," said Hewitt.
And he, more than anyone, will know it applies not to just to Australia, but to Brazil equally.
"We can't win the Davis Cup this weekend, but we can lose it." Bring it on.