Hewitt ready for Federer showdown

So often in the past 16 years, the story has been about Lleyton Hewitt's will/fight/heart/grit/determination, and Saturday's courageous 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 semi-final victory over second seed Kei Nishikori in enervating 40-plus-degree heat at the Brisbane International ensured that, after all this time, it still is.

"I love the battle," a sweat-soaked said Hewitt later. "You do all the hard work, mate, you don't come out here just to go through the motions. This is a true test out here, it's a one-on-one battle and that's what I love about it. When I do finally retire, you're retired for an awfully long time, so I'm trying to squeeze (out) absolutely everything I possibly can."

Taking the idea of an Indian summer to a ridiculous extreme, Hewitt qualified for his 45th career decider, the previous final having come last July in Newport, Rhode Island. In Australia, his most recent tournament decider was against Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open; since then, surgeries endured have exceeded titles won, but the 32-year-old is fit and healthy again and closing in on a top-50 return.

Not that Hewitt plays for the rankings, but a healthy one does make life more comfortable, and opportunities less wildcard-reliant. For the former No.1, now No.60, it is all about the majors, and Davis Cup, and both are approaching: the Australian Open from Monday week and the Davis Cup world group tie in France straight afterwards.

Has Hewitt still got it? Not like he used to, obviously, but when his potential Sunday opponent, Roger Federer, spoke of seeing the "fire" back in Hewitt's eyes, he was not to know quite how hot the temperature would become. Players were forced to cool themselves at changeovers with bags and towels full of ice during an attritional war that lasted for two-and-a-half hours.

The South Australian conceded almost nine years to an accomplished opponent who admitted pre-match that he did not necessarily enjoy the extreme conditions, but simply had to manage, somehow. But, despite dropping the first set in what could have been a killer blow, and then living dangerously late in the second, it was Hewitt who found what a way, hitting an off-forehand winner on his third match point.

Struggling early, as so often, with his first serve percentage, Hewitt had been under pressure several times in the opening set before faltering from 40-0 up at 5-5, with a double-fault, backhand error and poor approach shot that left Nishikori with an opening on a backhand pass down the line. The world No.17 then served out the 55-minute arm-wrestle 7-5.

Having won all three of his earlier matches in straight sets, Hewitt knew it would be a long and punishing trip back from there. Just as future star Nick Kyrgios was tweeting "Here we go Lleyton. Warrior", the former world No.1 was needing to summon all his remaining combative qualities on a court that provided shade, but no relief.

The satisfying result is that Hewitt is now unbeaten in nine semi-finals on home soil: in 2005 at Melbourne Park, three times in Adelaide and four in Sydney. And so, having won his maiden ATP singles titles in Adelaide 16 years ago, the veteran will now play for a 29th, and first since beating his old rival Federer on grass in Halle in 2010.

The Swiss, meanwhile, had warmed-up outside for the second semi-final against eighth seed Jeremy Chardy, and after sweltering through his practice session, could be found signing autographs for the enraptured fans before retreating to the cool of the locker-room. The 17-time grand slam champion has charmed everyone from the the corporates to the courtesy car drivers on his debut visit to the Brisbane International. Federer no longer reigns, but he still rules.

This story Hewitt ready for Federer showdown first appeared on WA Today.