David Leggat on sport

David Leggat is a Herald sport writer

David Leggat: Saluting the ageless Australian battler

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Australian sports fans generally warm to a battler.

He, or she, doesn't even have to be born in the wide brown land either.

They'll get their due if they put in a five-star effort, unless they're Indian cricketers.

India has been wretched on their current tour, dominated by the fawning pre-occupation with a made-up milestone of 100 international centuries for Sachin Tendulkar - what does that mean, you have test hundreds or ODI hundreds, the two don't mix - the Aussies want to smear them across Adelaide Oval this week to complete a 4-0 sweep.

Why? Apart from some antipathy towards their overweeningly arrogant hand over the world game, they've possessed little stomach for a fight.

The Australian Open men's draw had two Australians in the final 16, no mean feat considering the depths to which the game has slumped in the country that produced Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

So hats off to Lleyton Hewitt - not words that are a natural fit in this column, but there you go - for making the fourth round with a gritty win over a Canadian called Milos Raonic.

He was ranked No 23, which says something about the state of men's tennis outside the Big Four, but that's another story.

(And, by the way, is there a more insipid post-game interviewer than Jim Courier? His demeanour and delivery is more akin to reading a eulogy at a funeral.

Over-the-top histrionics we don't want, but surely there's someone with a bit more life about them who can still throw up the traditional cliched lobs in these situations).

Australia had two men in the last 16, the other being 19-year-old Bernard Tomic, born in Stuttgart of Croatian stock and world No 38, who last night ran into Roger Federer.

The challenge of tackling the world's best player of the last year, Novak Djokovic, falls to Hewitt today.

Hewitt is now world No 181, a steady decline from his days at the top of the heap (November 19, 2001 to June 9, 2003, 68 weeks, since you're wondering) but over the last decade or so he's trousered US$19 million ($23.5 million) from wielding a racket.

He won the US Open in 2001, Wimbledon a year later.

His best Australian Open effort was runner up in 2005.

It's a safe bet Hewitt won't be victorious in Melbourne before putting his sticks away for good.

Today there's unlikely to be an upset such as moustachioed part-time window cleaner Mark Edmondson, then world No 212, beating his great compatriot John Newcombe in the 1976 final. In his younger days, Hewitt was the sort of tennis brat it was easy to loathe. He still wears his baseball cap back to front, which looks a bit odd on a 30-year-old bonce.

Hewitt used to be among the more vigorous fist pumpers around. But whereas those who opt for that geeing-up gesture tended to use them at genuinely important moments, Hewitt was quite capable of pulling one out at 30-15 in the opening game.

He could be crass, rude and he wasn't unanimously popular in Australia. Just as is the case with Shane Warne, who sits among the alltime great cricketers, but never won total approval from the Australian sporting public for a range of reasons.

But give Hewitt his due. He's got ticker, has always been a fighter, and now he's at that age where he is at least able to discover that with age comes greater respect for doing your job to the very best of your ability.

Last year Samantha Stosur won the US Open, and there were big hopes of ending a 34-year long drought for an Aussie woman on the home court since Goolagong Cawley. A week ago Stosur, now world No 5, was bundled out in the first round.

There are two other women in the top 100, Jarmila Gajdosova at No 39 and Jelena Dokic at 64. So at least they have a presence, albeit lower key than of yore.

So what does this week hold in Melbourne?

The women's title could go to any number of candidates, such is the shortage of a clearcut one or two favourites.

The men's winner will be either Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Federer or, if he can work out what's missing from his game to make the step from almost to champion, Andy Murray.

That's the way the men's game is right now. Four players are a smash or two above the rest, and will be for a while yet.

WEEKEND WINNER

Auckland, defending their HRV Cup title, becoming the first two-time domestic T20 champions.

ONE TO WATCH

Actually two. The closing rounds of the Australian Open, and New Zealand's first home test of the summer against Zimbabwe, starting on Thursday in Napier.

- NZ Herald

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