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Hewitt Readies For 18th Aussie Assault

Melbourne, Australia

Hewitt© Getty ImagesLleyton Hewitt made his first Australian Open appearance as a 15-year-old qualifier in 1997.

Lleyton Hewitt has been answering questions on retirement for years, but on the eve of his 18th consecutive Australian Open, the two-time Grand Slam champion hasn’t lost a match this year. 

When he entered Melbourne Park in 1997, a long-haired 15-year-old qualifier drawn against the spinning balls of Roland Garros champion Sergi Bruguera, not even he imagined he would be back for 17 years without fail, but also that that would be his only match outside Rod Laver Arena. 

“I wouldn't have dreamt of that as my first one in '97 as a 15 year old, that's for sure. I didn't think I'd be playing anywhere near 30,” Hewitt said of the 18-year feat.

“I was obviously pretty nervous. Just qualified. Drew Sergi Bruguera who had won a couple of French Opens. He hit spin on his forehand that I'd never seen before. When I stop playing, it's something I'll be pretty proud of, wherever it stops, whatever number.”

But with his ball-striking as good as ever and his famed mental solitude as sturdy, stunning home crowds with back-to-back three-set wins against Kei Nishikori and Roger Federer to clinch his maiden Brisbane International title last week, the finishing line seems increasingly distant. 

“Obviously the form this year, I haven't lost a match, hitting the ball well, done all the right things. I had quality wins as well, especially the semi and final in Brisbane. That gives me a lot of confidence moving forward,” said 2005 Australian Open runner-up Hewitt.

“My ball striking at the moment is as good as it's been in a long time. I feel confident with what I'm doing down my end. I've just got to go out there and execute it.”

His path through the draw is littered with challenges, facing 24th seed Andreas Seppi in the first round, another possible encounter with Kei Nishikori in the third and a fourth-round prospect with top-ranked Rafael Nadal

“[Seppi is] a tough competitor. He plays well from the baseline, doesn't miss a lot of balls out there.  There's going to be a lot of long, gruelling rallies,” said Hewitt, who is level at 3-3 with Seppi in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series.

With Nadal facing Sydney runner-up Bernard Tomic in round one, Hewitt said the form needed to beat Nadal is the form that wins the trophy. 

“It turns into a physical battle. That's what Rafa does to everyone out there. The kind of pain that Novak had to go through to win a few years ago on centre court, that's what it takes. That's why it's so hard to beat Rafa.

“It's going to be a big ask obviously. I can definitely see the first couple of sets with Bernie, he'll get his chances,” Hewitt said of Tomic’s prospects. 

Combining strong form with underdog status, Hewitt is an undoubtable threat in his 18th consecutive Australian Open main draw. Agassi’s record 21 consecutive US Opens is perhaps under greater threat.

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