Melbourne, Australia, 16 January 2012 | AAP
Another day, another milestone for Lleyton Hewitt as the baseline warrior steels himself for a record 16th successive Australian Open tilt.
Hewitt takes on young German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe in the first round at Melbourne Park on Tuesday perhaps not as a title contender but with the fire still burning within.
No man in 45 years of open-era tennis has contested more Australian Opens and few, if any, have lined up for any grand slam championship in so many different guises.
Hewitt remains the youngest-ever player to qualify for the men’s main draw after debuting as a 15-year-old back in 1997.
He was the Open’s top seed and world No.1 in 2002 and 2003 and this year arrived as a wildcard ranked 181st after an injury-marred 2011.
The 30-year-old former Open runner-up is also now very much a family man and father of three.
Hewitt’s longevity rates alongside all-time greats John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, who each contested their home slam, the US Open, for 16 consecutive years.
Only Andre Agassi, who made 21 straight appearances at Flushing Meadows from 1986-2006, Jimmy Connors, who played the US Open non-stop from 1970-89, and fellow American Stan Smith, also with 20 successive US Opens, have played more home majors on the spin.
“Any time you get put in the same category as a guy like Jimmy Connors is fantastic,” Hewitt told DEUCE magazine.
“I mean, obviously he’s one of the greats of our game. He was able to play for so many years at such a competitive level of tennis as well against so many generations and he obviously had a stellar career.”
Despite his battered body no longer being able to cope with the year-round grind of life on the ATP Tour, Australia’s enduring champion refuses to discuss retirement.
Former coach Darren Cahill, who considers being in Hewitt’s corner for his 2001 US Open final triumph over Pete Sampras as perhaps his own career highlight, can understand why.
“My first impression of Lleyton was when he was 12 years old,” Cahill recalls in DEUCE.
“His parents wanted a different set of eyes and rang me up. Then, one day, there was a knock on the door and there was this little kid with his hat turned around backwards, (wearing) long shorts and he had a bag with like eight racquets.
“I looked at him and said: ‘Are you ready to go hit some?’
“He walked straight past me through the house and out to the court in the back yard. We must have hit for about three hours and all he wanted to do was play sets.”
Playing sets is still all the sport’s youngest-ever men’s world No.1 wants to do.
“Out of all the unseeded guys that guys could draw, I’d like to think that I’d probably be tougher than most of the others,” Hewitt told AAP, declaring himself the most dangerous floater in the draw.
“Especially over five sets, because what I pride myself on is being able to go the distance.”