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Wednesday, December 27, 2006
The drought Down Under


Mark Edmondson, 1976. Over the next few weeks, Australians will make their annual reacquaintance with that date -- the last time they had a home win at their Grand Slam event.

It doesn't come close to matching the British men's futility at Wimbledon -- that dates all the way back to Fred Perry in 1936 -- but it does put them behind the other two Grand Slam-hosting countries. For all the hand-wringing about American tennis this season, the United States is the most recent Slam nation to have a home winner: Andy Roddick in 2003. Yannick Noah won Roland Garros in 1983 before going on to earn additional fame as a pop star in France (and in the U.S., as the father of Florida Gators basketball player Joachim Noah).

But the French have two of generation next's brightest lights -- Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils -- and even the British have genuine world-class talent in Andy Murray. For the Australians, the beacon of hope lies much further down the road: 14-year-old Bernard Tomic. Even though Tomic won 23 straight matches in under-18 events this year -- "I feel like Roger Federer," he said -- he's still a few years away from playing on the men's tour.

So great Aussie expectations again fall squarely on the shoulders of Lleyton Hewitt. The good news: Players already practising Down Under say the courts are playing faster, after years of Hewitt haranguing for the surface to be speeded up. He's also been able to get in more preseason training time after an injury ended his 2006 season early.

The bad news is it could be too little, too late. History might show that Hewitt's best chance to win was 2005, the Australian Open's 100th anniversary -- after playing his heart out, he was just one match short of the dream finish. The chances are much slimmer now. Physical problems and family priorities (his daughter is now just over a year old) have reduced Hewitt's schedule, and his last Melbourne outing was a second-round loss. His famed feistiness has also become more subdued. Unlike two years ago, it would be a surprise if Hewitt showed he still has the firepower and the fire to win seven best-of-five matches and beat the best players along the way.

Not that they don't still respect him. Here's the roll call of challengers Federer gave this week: Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, David Nalbandian and "new ones coming" Ivan Ljubicic and Nikolay Davydenko. Nadal, for his part, said, "Lleyton was No. 1 for two years and, if he wants, he's always going to have a big chance to come back to the top positions."

But both would certainly like their chances against the battling Aussie in Melbourne, meaning that Edmondson might have his annual 15 days of fame for at least a few more years to come.

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