Commentary

Rivalry renewal ends on sour note

Updated: January 19, 2012, 10:26 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

It's 2027. Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, after a rousing "senior" exhibition, are tipping a few pints of Stella Artois at a Melbourne pub.

The Aussie, red-cheeked and animated, has engaged the American in a discussion -- frankly, it's become something of an argument -- concerning their careers. Who had the better one?

Hewitt: Listen, mate, in the only category worth mentioning, I won two majors (2001 U.S. Open, 2002 Wimbledon). Last time I checked, you only had one -- the 2003 U.S. Open.

Roddick: Yeah, but I made five major finals, compared to only four for you. And you never pushed Federer quite like I did in those three Wimbledon finals in '04, '05 and '09. That last one was 16-14 in the fifth.

Hewitt: Well, how about No. 1? I finished twice as the top player, in '01 and '02. Eighty weeks on top -- to your 13.

Roddick: Once again, I'll go with sustained excellence over time. I was No. 1 in 2003 -- hey, didn't you fall to No. 17 that year? -- and I finished in the top 10 for nine straight years. Federer's the only other guy who can say that. Enough said.

Hewitt: How about titles? I won 28, two of them Masters Cup shields, Indian Wells in '02 and '03. Oh, and two in Davis Cup -- to your one.

Roddick: No contest. I'm at 30 titles and, unlike you, I'm planning to add to that total. Plus, I've got five Masters Series titles, including two in Miami and two in Cincinnati.

Hewitt: Hey, all the trophies in the world can't match my wife Bec [Cartwright]. She's beloved down here, a talented actress and singer.

Roddick: Really? Brooklyn [Decker] was a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. Made the cover twice! Check, mate?

Hewitt: Ah, good on ya. Arm-wrestle you for it.

As far as careers go, it's been a dead heat. On Thursday night in Australia -- back to the present -- Hewitt and Roddick met for the 14th time. It was the earliest they've ever met in a tournament.

"Don't really have to ask around too much to find out what Andy's strengths and weaknesses are," Hewitt said before the match.

At the outset Thursday, it was Roddick playing the role of Hewitt, trying to extend points to leverage his fitness. Hewitt looked to be trying to end points as quickly as possible, often luring Roddick to net. But then, in a matter of seconds, they found their roles reversed.

Moving abruptly from left to right when Hewitt hit behind him, Roddick clearly pulled something in his upper right leg in the third game of the second set. After that, he had difficulty moving to his left. Roddick was stoic -- he even had three break points with Hewitt serving for the third set -- but in the end he retired with a hamstring injury some 2 hours, 12 minutes into the match down 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.

"It's a nightmare for both of us," Hewitt said afterward. "It's hard to concentrate for the player on the other end as well. I don't want to say I'm mean, but you try to run him around more."

[+] EnlargeLleyton Hewitt
Quinn Rooney/Getty ImagesLleyton Hewitt beat Andy Roddick for the first time in almost six years.

Hewitt faces a more serious challenge in Saturday's third round -- 21-year-old Canadian Milos Raonic.

It's been more than eight years since either Hewitt or Roddick won a Grand Slam singles championship, but that's hardly the point anymore.

These guys are not the most gifted athletes -- they were not blessed with anything approaching a touch of elegance on the court. But they bang and scrap and give you everything. Have for the past decade and, we can hope, will for a few more years.

Before Roger and Rafa and Nole, they were the best on the planet for three straight years. That was more than a generation ago, in tennis terms. Hewitt was fast and gritty, a superb returner; Roddick, all power, was the fastest sever. Yin and yang.

The world of tennis has evolved, of course, but they haven't. At 30, Hewitt is a step slower after a series of hip injuries and, now, a toe issue. Today, there might be more than 25 guys who serve harder than Roddick, who turns 30 in August.

This was Hewitt's 16th consecutive Australian Open, an all-time record. He came into the tournament with three three-set losses in 2012, two of them exhibitions. When you're ranked No. 181 on the ATP World Tour, a wild card here for the first time in 13 years, this is taken as a confidence-builder. Playing his first-round match in front of a stoked Aussie crowd, Hewitt erased a 5-1 deficit against German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe in the fourth set to win 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. After 3 hours, 58 minutes, in a gesture not on scale with the accomplishment, Hewitt fell backward to the court, arms extended.

It has been speculated that this might be Hewitt's last year. But afterward, in his on-court interview, he summoned a goofy grin.

"I'm not going to join you in the commentary box just yet."

Although Hewitt's career arc is a power fade -- just as 19-year-old Aussie Bernard Tomic is ascending like a younger, more diverse Hewitt -- Roddick still finds himself relevant. He's ranked No. 16 and, poked and prodded by coach Larry Stefanki, he's still got some juice. Roddick won the Memphis title last year, but more importantly, he reached the quarterfinals at the previous major, the U.S. Open, and did the same at the 2010 Australian Open. This injury, though, is not the way he wanted to start 2012.

In the first round Down Under, Roddick handled Robin Haase in straight sets.

"I think when we play, numbers go out the door as far as the number next to our name as far as ranking," Roddick said of Hewitt before the match. "He knows how to win tennis matches. He's a fighter. I have as much respect for him as I do for anybody in the game -- how he goes about his business, how he competes, how professional he is."

He might have been talking about himself.

Hewitt won six of the first seven meetings with Roddick, but was 0-6 going back to the summer of 2005. Thus, this was his first win over Roddick in nearly seven years. Ironically, Hewitt held the edge in aces, 11-9.

"I'm just happy to be out here," Hewitt said. "In the last four years, I've had five surgeries, pretty serious surgeries. I came in here with nothing to lose."

The Hewitt-Roddick head-to-head is now 7-7. Appropriately, it just might end that way.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.