Hewitt returns to partner Groth at AO

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There are a lot of good reasons not to make your retirement official in tennis.

Watching your ranking slide into the abyss, week by week for the first 52 weeks is probably not one of them. But you don’t have to look, unless you’re a masochist.

One reason to stay technically active (and risk potential early-morning visits from Mr. Antidoping) is that you can come back and play whenever you want to.

And so, as countryman and fellow Aussie icon Pat Rafter did before him four years ago, Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt come out of retirement to play doubles at the Australian Open.

He will help give loyal Davis Cup foot soldier Sam Groth a proper career sendoff.

Groth is still just 30 – six years younger than Hewitt. But his 6-foot-4, 220-pound body has said no más as he arguably maximized during his career.

Currently ranked No. 248, he was due to take part in the AO wild-card playoff this week to try to earn a wild card into one last main draw in singles. But his back had other ideas.

So Groth will play doubles with Hewitt, and mixed doubles with Samantha Stosur. And it’s still possible he’ll get a singles wild card.

Steve-O at Channel 7 had the scoop.

“It’s going to be a bit of fun. That’s what the Australian Open’s about, it’s the Happy Slam to be around. And for me, going out there in a different way, I’m going to really enjoy it,” Hewitt told Channel 7.

“We’ve been hitting a lot of balls, hitting every day. We’re not going out there to make up the numbers, we want to give it a fair crack,” Groth said.

Hewitt officially retired two years ago, in an emotional one on Rod Laver Arena. Before the event began, he had a couple of final hits with longtime foe Roger Federer.

For years before that, the Adelaide native had fought against a body that was willing, but ultimately could go no more.

But that doesn’t mean Hewitt is not still in top shape. Being the Davis Cup captain, he leads by example with a still-rigorous work ethic.

Even before he was officially named captain two years ago, he would take the young Aussies out on the court, even go up against two of them, and have them dripping sweat as he looked fresh and ready for more.

Dejà vu, on the swan song side

So it will be a bit of a different situation than when Hewitt and Rafter teamed up in 2014. 

Rafter was 41 then. But other than a couple of doubles matches in 2004, he hadn’t been out on court in 13 years, after a premature retirement. He seemed rather abashed by the whole experience.

Groth and Hewitt are pretty good at the doubles together.

No doubt they’ll schedule that one for Hisense Arena, the second-biggest court and one that’s open to everyone including grounds-pass holders, to send both off properly.

And they could well win, depending on the draw.

Radek Stepanek announces retirement

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Radek Stepanek turns 39 later this month. 

He’s been out nearly the whole season with chronic back issues that go way back, and had his second surgery last spring specifically to try to extend his career.

But he said goodbye to his longtime fitness coach a couple of weeks ago.

So it likely was a matter of when, not if, the veteran Czech would retire.

And on Tuesday, during a press conference streamed live, the man they nicknamed “The Worm” announced that it indeed was the end.

Stepanek’s old school grips – especially on the forehand – and relatively unimposing physique may not have screamed “champion”.

But he had a long and extraordinarily fruitful career after turning pro all the way back in 1996. He reached the top 10 in both singles and doubles, which not many players have done over the last few generations.

Stepanek won five titles in singles, reaching a total of 12 finals. And in doubles, he won 18 titles. In a late surge with partner Leander Paes towards the end of his career, he put himself on the Grand Slam map with wins at the Australian Open in 2012, and the US Open in 2013.

Davis Cup hero

His greatest contribution might well have been in representing his country.

Stepanek played 26 Davis Cup ties between 2003 and 2016. He went 20-5 in doubles and 15-13 in singles. He, Tomas Berdych and the rest of the squad defeated Spain in the 2012 final, and defended the Cup with a win over Serbia in 2013.

He also won a bronze in mixed doubles at the Rio Olympics with Lucie Hradecka.

(For those of you fluent in Czech, here’s the stream of the retirement press conference).

 

“I’ve always said I wake up one day and I’ll know it’s over. That moment came. I looked at my life from a wider perspective and I want to keep my health in the next stages of life. I believe I can experience other great moments outside of tennis. I struggled to the last breath, but it’s time to go on,” he said (via irozhlas.cz, via Google Translate)

One last singles push

Stepanek probably could have played doubles for many more years, but the body clearly had other ideas. He was all set to play with 2014 Wimbledon champion Vasek Pospisil in 2017; the two reached the final in their debut in Doha. 

But they lost in the first round of doubles at the Australian Open to an Aussie wild card team. That tournament, it turns out, was the last of Stepanek’s career.

Stepanek had been way down in the depths of the rankings after missing a significant chunk of time in 2014 and 2015. He could have just continued on as a doubles specialist. But he challenged himself to make a last run in singles.

The Czech hoisted himself back into the top 100, a solid effort considering that in July 2015, he was down to No. 369. And that he was heading towards his late 30s.

He began 2017 by qualifying in Doha and reaching the quarterfinals (losing to his friend Novak Djokovic). Then he qualified at the Australian Open and reached the second round, losing to David Goffin.  

And that was it.

 

What’s next for the Worm?

Well, Tennis.Life witnessed first hand that he is quite the motivator, as he willed countrywomen Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova to victory against Canada at the Rio Olympics.

He also has a great rapport with Novak Djokovic, who is looking for a day-to-day coach to supplement the events at which mentor Andre Agassi is present.

No, we’re not suggesting that’s even a rumor.

But Stepanek (who has been engaged to Martina Hingis and dated Petra Kvitova, and is divorced from Nicole Vaidisova even if they have reportedly had a recent rapprochement), seems to be single with no dependants.

It’s easy to picture him right back on Tour as a coach, although he does have business interests. He was one of those guys who loved every bit of the Tour experience, his curious mind always looking for new experiences and learning new things wherever he travelled.

There are plenty of players looking for help at the moment. So we may well see him back before very long. He definitely has a lot of experience in the trenches to share.

Peter Doohan diagnosed with ALS

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Aussie Peter Doohan, best known on the ATP Tour for one shining, improbable moment but a fine player for more than a decade, has received some tragic news.

According to his Facebook post, the 56-year-old Aussie has been diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

“Well, got rough news last nite from neuro Doc in Sydney ! He diagnosed me with MND (motor neurone disease) with only months to live ….
Like my friend Dave in Nelson Bay said when told he was terminal; “I’ve had a great time !” What a life I’ve had, no regrets … Of course I’ll battle on with hope experimental immuno-drug works wonders in coming weeks !”

doohanDoohan first came to the US to attend the University of Arkansas where he was all-American and an NCAA champion. He stayed on for 20 years in a variety of coaching roles after a long pro career.

As a pro, the Aussie reached No. 15 in the doubles rankings and won five titles. But his immortal moment in singles came almost exactly 30 years ago.

Doohan was ranked No. 58 when he faced two-time defending champion and No. 1 seed Boris Becker in the second round of Wimbledon in 1987.

He shocked Becker – and everyone in tennis – 7-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 in a victory that still ranks among the biggest all-time upsets.

Doohan has two sons. What terrible news.

At 33, Juan “Pico” Mónaco retires

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It was probably inevitable, given how little former world No. 10 Juan Mónaco – best known as Pico – has played this season.

Still, his retirement announcement Monday morning was a shock.

The 33-year-old Argentine won nine ATP Tour titles during his career, and earned more than $10 million as he reached a career-high singles ranking of No. 10 in 2012.

Not many players in tennis reach the top 10. It’s a tremendous accomplishment largely based on some of the qualities he outlines in his statement.

 

But in later years, the Argentine had trouble staying healthy.

Another wrist injury victim

The right wrist bothered Mónaco as early as 2013. He had surgery on it midway through the 2015 season and was sidelined for more than six months. He Monacoreturned in April, 2016 at the clay-court event in Houston, Texas – and won it. His ranking at the time was No. 148.

Among the other ailments that forced him to pull out of tournaments in 2016 were the back and knee. He’s also had hip issues.

Mónaco played just three tournaments this season – actually, just three matches. He lost in the first round at Indian Wells to Adrian Mannarino and in the first round in Miami to Federico Delbonis. As defending champion, he played the Houston tournament. But he lost in the first round there to Dustin Brown.

Here he is on the practice court at Indian Wells in March. Who knew it would be one of his last tournaments.

The points from Mónaco’s quarterfinal effort in Rome last year (he gave Lucas Pouille a walkover after upsetting No. 4 Stan Wawrinka in the third round) came off Monday. That dropped his ranking from No. 120 down to No. 196.

Popular player, changing hairstyles

Mónaco was never a rock star. But he was a very good player – and a very popular one because of his pleasant demeanour, good looks and passing resemblance to Bruce Springsteen.

That he eagerly shucked his shirt on the practice courts whenever the weather permitted only added to his cult-like popularity. 

Here’s a look at some of Mónaco’s fashion stylings, and the evolution of his lion’s mane into something a little more corporate as he matured.

But most of all, he was a quality player during a quality era, who always gave it full effort.