- Matt Wilansky, Tennis editor
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PARIS -- Lleyton Hewitt has made a healthy living leveraging his scrapping survival tactics into something of, ironically, an art form. We are talking, after all, about a guy whose tennis roots began after playing Australian Rules Football, a rugged sport that requires its players to run more than six miles a game on occasion.
That steadfast, steely grit led Hewitt to a remarkable run when he finally did join the ranks of the elite tennis players, one that guided him to 80 weeks atop the rankings, two Grand Slam titles and ... a few animated spats along the way. For Hewitt, you were either on his side or you weren't. His hubris helped him win over a legion of fans, but, as you can imagine, it created an army of detractors.
Now, more than a decade later, that fighting spirit hasn't waned despite a growing list of physical ailments that have neutralized his ability to roam the court with such precision. With Hewitt trying to fend off his swansong as long as possible, he let a comfortable two-set lead slip away in the opening round of the French Open, losing to Gilles Simon 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 1-6, 7-5. And that inevitably begged the question: How much longer?
When someone asked Hewitt in his postmatch press conference whether we'd see him in Paris next year, he succinctly said, "Don't know. Haven't even thought about it."
Hewitt takes much pride in his ball-striking ability. He might be one of the best ever, in fact. During his match against Simon, his former coach Darren Cahill tweeted after the first two sets, "Best I've seen Hewitt play in about 8 years." Hewitt, too, was happy with his hitting but admitted he didn't come here with heavy expectations.
"Physically I feel good," he said. "I was never going to play a lot of clay tournaments anyway. I wanted to be fresh physically and mentally for the grass season."
For Hewitt, this was his 56th Grand Slam event, tied for the most among all active players with, you guessed it, Roger Federer. Hewitt was the only player outside the big three who entered the Roland Garros draw with Grand Slam-winning hardware. Even with Hewitt's tennis dotage catching up, ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said we shouldn't jump to any conclusions.
"Look at what Tommy Haas at 35 is doing," Gilbert said. "He's changing some guys' opinions. [Hewitt] has persevered through a lot of injuries and is still incredibly passionate." But, Gilbert warned, "Anytime you start thinking about retirement it comes a lot sooner."
Hewitt's body has failed him for years, but his street fighting mindset has always kept him going. He has a well-known obsession with "Rocky" and approaches every match with the same aplomb.
"He did a lot of things the Aussies never saw before," Gilbert said. "The fist pumps. The lawnmower has to be one of the most unusual celebrations I've ever seen."
A big heart; an even greater competitor. But is that enough? Hewitt's pride certainly won't let him make any concessions. And though he suffered another early-round loss, he, fittingly, didn't surrender without a fight.
• • •
Life must be a little more enjoyable when you're in Paris playing at the French Open instead of cramming for a college final exam.
"The biggest difference is in college you're not just an athlete, you're also a student,'' Mallory Burdette said. "And so for me, at least, there was no downtime. You're at class all morning and then you're at practice all afternoon and then as soon as you're done with practice, you grab some food and go study. There is no free time. You're balancing two pretty difficult tasks at one time. Where now, I'm just enjoying focusing only on tennis.''
Burdette certainly enjoyed things Sunday when she won her first match at this year's French Open by beating Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-4. And to think, last year Burdette still was a junior playing for Stanford before deciding to leave school and go pro after a very strong showing at the US Open last September.
"If you had told me a year ago when I was playing in the NCAA tournament that I would be here this year, I would say you're crazy,'' she said. "I guess it's just a testament to the fact that you have to work day in and day out. You never know what that hard work will bring you.''
Burdette, who played juniors at Roland Garros previously, has grown a lot in her first year on the pro tour. She said the biggest difference in her game since leaving Stanford has been increased fitness.
"I think she has a good game,'' Serena Williams said. "I really respect her. I played her in Charleston and I really respect how she played. It's always great to see another American player doing well, and she's young. And she's out of college so I have a lot of respect for her for all the things she's done already.''
Burdette also said she got an emotional boost from Stanford recently wining the NCAA championship despite being a No. 12 seed.
"They obviously didn't need me at all this year,'' Burdette said. "It's always a great thing to see Stanford do well. To have them become the first 12 seed to win the tournament is great. I've been talking with (Stanford player) Natalie Dillon quite a bit. I'm so happy for them. They really deserve it.
"It's always fun to see them do well and I love all those girls so it's very exciting for me as well."
• • •
Sam Querrey is a fine fellow and a terrific tennis player -- but safe to say, dirt just doesn't agree with him.
Sunday, however, he came into Roland Garros as the top-seeded American man. And he equaled his best performance at the French Open, advancing to the second round with a thorough 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 beating of Lukas Lacko of Slovakia.
"Feels great to get a win," Querrey said. "My other win came on this court (No. 7), so that's the only court I can win on here."
Querrey is now 2-6 at Roland Garros and recorded only his second clay court win of 2013. He did it, Querrey said, by focusing solely on his attitude.
"I felt like especially last week [in Nice, France] and a couple of other times this year I was getting down on myself a little too much," Querrey said. "I just focused on my attitude out here today and played the best match I've played all year -- on any surface."
Querrey will face Jan Hajek in the second round -- he hopes, on Court No. 7.
The more he ages, the more we appreciate Lleyton Hewitt’s grit. But it wasn’t enough at the French Open.