Melbourne: Time and injuries may have wearied his body, but nothing seems to have reduced Lleyton Hewitt's bravado. The two-time Grand Slam champion takes to the court on Monday night for his 17th consecutive Australian Open.
Asked on Sunday whether he felt unlucky to have drawn the eighth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic in the first round, Hewitt replied: "I don't care. I'll knock him off, try to take his spot in the draw."
Hewitt, who will turn 32 next month, heads into the Australian Open full of confidence after winning the Kooyong exhibition tournament on Saturday, despite his No. 81 ranking. He beat No. 7-ranked Juan Martin Del Potro in the Kooyong final after wins over No. 6 Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic.
"The last couple of matches I've hit the ball as well as I can remember," Hewitt said. "I feel confident with where my game's at. I'm serving well, my returns and obviously passing shots and counterpunching has been pretty good anyway. So far I haven't put too many feet wrong."
Hewitt's first Australian Open was in 1997, when he lost in the first round after entering the main draw as the youngest qualifier at the tournament. Since then, he's only made it past the fourth round at Melbourne Park once - his loss in the 2005 final to Marat Safin ended his chance to add to the national championship to his Grand Slam wins at the U.S. Open in 2001 and Wimbledon the following year.
Hewitt was the youngest to achieve the No. 1 ranking - at 20 years and eight months at the end of 2001 - and held top spot for a total of 75 weeks. Along the way, he's had a surgical ward full of injuries.
A fall at his home resulted in a cracked rib in 2005, he had a right knee injury in 2006, back injury in 2007, left hip surgery in 2009, a right hand injury in 2010 and he missed three months in 2011 following left foot surgery. Just when he thought he was done with injuries, he had a toe operation on his left foot that forced him off the circuit for three months last year.
Hewitt has always loved playing before the home crowd in Australia - "Obviously I'd rather 15,000 barracking for me than against me" - and he hopes to harness that on Monday night against Tipsarevic. Once I'm out there in the atmosphere, the adrenaline is pumping, it sort of takes care of itself," Hewitt said. "I've been in that situation playing big matches out on that court. I'm so familiar with it and I enjoy the surroundings. That's a positive and a bonus."
Roger Federer, who will play in his 14th straight Australian Open this week, says he's always been a Hewitt fan.
"No doubt about it, I am one of the guys who has always believed in Lleyton, even though people were writing him off and being negative," Federer told Australian Associated Press. "The guy has given everything and more to Australia, to tennis. He's done a lot. So I admire that he's still playing, that he loves it."
Defending champion Novak Djokovic, who plays on Serbia's Davis Cup team with Tipsarevic, hasn't written off Hewitt's chances in the first round.
"Last year before the Australian Open, everybody thought that he (Hewitt) won't be able to hold on physically best of five, but he managed to come to the fourth round where I played a tough four-setter against him," Djokovic said. "He's proving everybody wrong. He's a great competitor and somebody that a lot of players have a lot of respect for. I'm sure in front of his crowd he's going to be extra motivated to do well. "
Hewitt, who married Australian actress Bec Cartwight in 2005 - they have three children - never needs to worry about his legacy to the sport in his country. He has played 66 Davis Cup matches and is 38-13 in singles, leading Australia to Davis Cup trophies in 1999 and 2003, and represented Australia at the Olympics three times.
Even he's impressed with his longevity at his home Grand Slam.
"To play 17 Australian Opens in a row, main draw in singles, is something not easy to do," Hewitt said. "I haven't been 100 percent for all of them, but in terms of the staying power, being able to play through generations, is something I'll look back on and be pretty proud of."