Melbourne, Australia, 13 November 2012 | Matt Trollope

After years of physical troubles, Lleyton Hewitt is feeling healthy and mentally fresh and has no intention of drawing the curtains on a stellar playing career any time soon.

In 2013 the 31-year-old will embark on his 16th season as a professional, having topped the world rankings in 2001 and 2002, pocketed major titles at Wimbledon and the US Open, and being part of Australia’s winning Davis Cup teams of 1999 and 2003, an honour he covets dearly.

It’s incredible that Hewitt, now happily married and the father of three children, can find the motivation to continue grinding through life on the tennis circuit following five surgeries in the past four years. In fact, the South Australian struggles to explain it himself.

“I don’t know. Maybe I just love punishment, I don’t know,” he said, speaking at Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club in Melbourne on Tuesday.

“Davis Cup and the Grand Slams are still the priority for me. In terms of Grand Slams, the Australian Open and Wimbledon are the two that I love playing and mean the most to me, and when I finally do stop they’re the two tournaments that I’d miss for sure.

“But right at the moment I’m still hungry to go out there and do the hard work and I enjoy it, I enjoy the training, I enjoy pushing myself … Mentally I feel pretty fresh, I feel ready to go out there and compete, and when I go out there and I play well, I think I can still compete against the best guys.”

Hewitt will get the chance to compete at his beloved Australian Open in just two months, his rise to world No.82 ensuring that he will be directly accepted into the main draw at Melbourne Park. He will begin his preparations for the tournament at the Brisbane International, before heading to Kooyong to compete against a stellar field at the AAMI Classic including top tenners Juan Martin del Potro and Janko Tipsarevic, rising stars Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori, crowd favourite Marcos Baghdatis and world No.12 Juan Monaco.

The veteran beat Monaco just recently at the ATP Valencia tournament, when Monaco was ranked No.10. It was Hewitt’s first top 10 win in more than two years, and announced a return to form that was beginning to take shape immediately following Wimbledon.

Returning to tennis at Roland Garros this year after a four-month layoff following toe surgery, Hewitt initially struggled, going 0-3 through Wimbledon. But at Newport he caught fire, reaching the final as a 233rd-ranked wildcard. He then returned to Wimbledon for the Olympic tennis event, winning through to the third round and pushing world No.2 Novak Djokovic to the brink in a thrilling Centre Court battle.

Hewitt, who would later go on to reach the third round at the US Open and quarterfinals in Stockholm, believes he began to find his feet, quite literally, at Newport and in London.

“Obviously I didn’t know exactly how I was going to bounce back from the surgery. I came back a little earlier that probably everyone would have thought at the time, and I was still feeling the foot a little bit and it was such a major surgery that no other athlete’s really every tried to come back (after) and play competitive sport again, so there were a lot of unknowns for me,” he reflected.

“(But) I started getting a lot more confidence in my movement and my footwork which is such a big part of my game. By the end of the year I played some really good tennis and knocked off a couple of top 30 players in the last couple of weeks, and it was good to beat Monaco.

“(Against Djokovic in London) I was only really two points away from serving for the match to beat him in straight sets. My movement and ball striking was as good as it’s been in a long time.”

It’s great news for Hewitt’s increasing army of fans, with the Australian currently pain-free and with confidence fully restored in his movement. He’s now leading by example on the practice court, pushing himself to the limit in his customary style.

And Hewitt is conscious of his role as the elder statesman of Australian tennis. He’s thrilled at the mental gains made by Marinko Matosevic and the fact the Victorian has been rewarded for his hard work with a place in the top 50. He’s spent time with Bernard Tomic at the Olympics and Davis Cup ties, chatting with the 20-year-old about where he can improve parts of his game to build on the top 30 ranking he achieved earlier this season. He sees the young group of players behind Tomic, including James Duckworth and Luke Saville, as possessing much potential.

He even views his ranking ascent through the prism of opportunity for tennis in Australia, saying that his direct acceptance into the Australian Open main draw frees up a wildcard for a young Aussie prospect.

“(The role of mentor) sort of just happens like that. Everyone gets my number (laughter), and they come calling and talk about schedules or different issues or situations they have – whether it’s Matty Ebden or Marinko or Gooch,” Hewitt said.

“They all do it and that’s fine for me, because they feel like obviously I’ve been through a hell of a lot in my career and can help them in that way.”

Yet even though talent continues to emerge, Hewitt is not ready to relinquish his place in the Australian tennis landscape just yet.

With much to gain in the next six months given the paucity of points he earned between the Australian Open and Newport in 2012, Hewitt says he plans to complete a full schedule in 2013. And as long as the Australian Open exists, he has plenty to play for.

“I can’t see myself stopping at the Paris Indoors when there’s the Australian Open a month later.”