Aussie Open first-round notes

There was a time when two players who made first-round exits at the Aussie Open in Melbourne Park were considered consistent title contenders anywhere they played. Lleyton Hewitt, a hometown hero for many Aussies who happens to be the same age as the great Roger Federer (and still holds the record for being the youngest number one, at age 20), couldn’t summon enough fifth-set magic, as he has done so many times before, and lost in the first round after digging out of a two sets to love hole to tie the match. Venus Williams made an equally ignominious exit, losing in the first round of a winnable match in which she was up a break in the final set.

Hewitt is something of an anomaly. On the rise in the early 2000s, making former greats look silly, he won two Grand Slam titles (2001 US Open, 2002 Wimbledon) en route to spending 80 weeks at number one. Then, just as quickly, Roger Federer burst on to the scene, and all other notable players from that era became footnotes, recognizable only for final appearances in which Federer did not participate, or by losing to him over and over again. Hewitt made the 2005 Australian Open final, losing to Marat Safin despite dominating the first set. To date, it’s the closest the folk from Down Under have had to a man winning their country’s title since 1976. Not quite the UK’s Wimbledon drought ended last year (started in 1936) by Andy Murray, but still. Hewitt played well in the early years of the Federer and Everyone Else era, until injuries sidetracked him, and he has struggled to regain top-10 form in recent years. He has had surgery on his left foot as well as his hip, but like a true champion, battled through as much as he could, making several other Grand Slam final appearances, ultimately falling each time.

He gets mention here because he as always good for a solid, exciting run at the Australian Open, and the crowd would get just as charged up during his matches as the New York crowd once did for John McEnroe. He had just come off defeating Federer in the final of one of the warmup tournaments, potentially portending good things for his run here. Sadly, it was not to be. He made mention last year of how he was not sure how much longer he would be able to handle the grind. Look for Hewitt’s continued decline and eventual retirement.

For an even sadder case, look no further than the sister of current number one, Venus Williams. Although not ranked number one since 2002, at the end of her early run of success, she was winning major titles as late as 2008, when she won her fifth Wimbledon. In 2011, she was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, which is an autoimmune disease that, among other things, saps your energy. She has won only one singles title and made one other final since her diagnosis. Imagine being a professional athlete and being unsure if you’ll have enough energy to properly compete in matches of the highest possible pressure. It was devastating news at the time and Venus hasn’t been the same since.

She struggles with her consistency. Her serve, once more highly regarded than that of her sister Serena, lacks the pop it once had. Her age (33) has coupled with the unfortunate fact of her consistency struggles to diminish many of the advantages that she once enjoyed, namely an ability to finish points with her groundstrokes (especially backhand) from anywhere on the court. I saw her in New York: it was almost depressing to see her squander yet another winnable match with consistency struggles in the third set and final tiebreaker. I hope she keeps going, and finds a way to regain her consistency, but it would not surprise me if this season were amongst her last.

Venus Williams has struggled with her consistency since 2011.

Venus Williams has struggled with her consistency since 2011.

In other first-round notes, there were a few surprises and more than a few disappointments. A highly-anticipated matchup between one-seed Rafael Nadal and upstart Bernard Tomic, a hometown favorite who was on form after making the final of the Sydney International, an Australian Open tuneup. Tomic retired after the first set with a groin injury, despite playing well against the world number one (He lost the set, 6-4). John Isner, someone I had predicted to play well in Melbourne, also retired due to an ankle injury, proving once again that in the oppressive heat, you have be lucky as well as ridiculously conditioned (proving again Isner’s 11 hour marathon at Wimbledon in 2010 was more of a historical oddity than anything else).

Gaël Monfils continues his road to recovery and great play, making the final of the Qatar tuneup tournament, taking a set off Nadal en route to losing in the final, and playing well in his first-round match in Melbourne. Don’t be surprised if he plays well against Jack Sock, a big hitter and his second-round opponent, though the fact that he would get Nadal in the third round will likely end his run early.

On the women’s side, an early exit for Francesca Schiavone (against the number 20 seed, Dominika Cibulkova, but still) combined with poor recent showings at her best tournament, Roland Garros, has made that 2010 title in Paris look like more of a fluke than ever before. Since making the final in 2011, she has failed to reach the quarters there or at any other Slam. Also making early exits were 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova (perpetually disappointing) and Sara Errani, whose final appearance at Roland Garros in 2012 just serves to reinforce the unpredictability of that tournament.

Look for woefully inconsistent former US Open champ and hometown hopeful Sam Stosur in the third round. She should get Ana Ivanovic, a former world number one and French Open winner who has looked to regain form in recent years and has looked better of late. If Stosur can find a way, perhaps she can make a run, but the looming presence of Serena in the Round of 16 might end things a bit prematurely. Then again, she did convincingly handle Serena for her lone Slam title, in New York, in 2011.

Much more to discuss in the coming days. Keep it right here.