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December 15, 2005

Lleyton Hewitt

GREG SHARKO: Good afternoon to our Bay Area media who joined in today's call with Lleyton Hewitt. Lleyton is at his home in Sydney for this call. He finished the 2005 season ranked No. 4 on the ATP circuit, his fourth top four ranking in the last five years. He'll be making his first San Jose appearance since winning the title over Andre Agassi in an exciting third-set tiebreak in 2002. At this time I'll just turn it over to Bill Rapp for a couple opening remarks.

BILL RAPP: Thanks, Greg. Lleyton and Rob, thanks again for joining us. I also wanted to congratulate you, Lleyton, and your wife Bec on the birth of your daughter Mia Rebecca on November 29th.

LLEYTON HEWITT: It's great. Thanks, mate.

BILL RAPP: Welcome to all the writers. Let's go ahead and get started.

Q. What do you remember about your last trip here in San Jose?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Yeah, it was great. I started out, the start of the tournament I wasn't hitting the ball fantastic. I just had the chickenpox actually during the Australian Open, so I'd had about four weeks off or three weeks off before coming to San Jose to play. I was a little bit rusty at the start of the tournament but got better and better. By the quarters, semis and the final, the final was one of the greatest matches I've ever been a part of against Andre. Yeah, to come out and play a third-set tiebreaker, and the tennis stayed at such a high level for all three sets, you know, it was a fantastic atmosphere out there. It was a real adrenaline rush. I think both the players played a part in that match.

Q. If that was on a Grand Slam stage, is that a match people would be still talking about today?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Oh, absolutely I think. There wasn't a whole lot of errors that I remember throughout the match. I think the match was won and lost on winners the whole way through. I remember the third-set tiebreak was pretty remarkable. We played a couple of huge points out there. I watched the match actually back on DVD a few times that following year after we played it. Some of the tennis was remarkable. For me, I was so happy to get my game back to that level so quickly after having the chickenpox only a few weeks before that.

Q. Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick both reached No. 1 and won a Slam at a very young age. Considering that you and Andy are both former No. 1's heading into their second and third year respectively without a major, with Federer being so dominant, do you feel like you've slipped or are they playing better than they were -- are you playing better than you were when you were No. 1? What is the challenge for you who have been at the top to get back to No. 1?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Yeah, well, I think the game's always getting better and better the whole time. To stay at the top, you have to keep improving, there's no doubt about that. Federer obviously has taken the game to a new level. I felt I was able to take it to a new level a couple years ago. You got to keep working on your game and keep improving. I think I am a more complete and better player back when I was No. 1 in the world. Right at the moment, though, Federer has been able to take his game to an extraordinary level. Obviously, he's been nearly unbeatable in the last two or three years now. But that doesn't mean that I'm playing any worse. I'm putting myself -- the last seven Grand Slams I've played, I've lost to the eventual winner, a lot of those being Roger Federer. I'm putting myself in the right position every time. It's just a matter of trying to change that somewhere along the line and hopefully holding up the big trophy not too far down the line.

Q. Talk a little bit more about Roger. You've been on the tour for a while. He's obviously had a great three-year run. Should we expect him to sustain the same level in the next year or two or does it become more and more difficult with each passing year to do that?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Yeah, I'm not sure. He's been able to handle it pretty comfortably the last three years. I think everyone is probably thinking, "When is this run going to stop?" Obviously, he's an amazing player with a lot of array of shots out there. I know he had a few weeks off before the Masters Cup through injury. A few guys got a bit closer. Especially Andre and myself at the US Open pushed him in the semi and final there. So hopefully we're bridging that gap a little bit right at the moment. It's going to be interesting. He's obviously won the Australian Open. He's going to be very confident going into it this year, the start of next year. I think a lot of the guys are capable of pushing him out there. It's just a matter of doing it on the big stage in the big matches. That's where Roger has been so good in the last few years. Apart from he's lost to Nalbandian in the Masters Cup final, his run in finals was incredible. That's when he's played his best tennis, in the big matches.

Q. How much, as a guy who has finished No. 1 two years in a row, how much of staying at the top is mental versus physical?

LLEYTON HEWITT: I think a lot of it would be mental, especially with Roger now only losing four matches for the year this year. It's a pretty amazing record. I think a lot of that time, you know, to stay up the whole time and be playing your best tennis, not even in the smaller tournaments rather than the majors, to stay motivated for those smaller tournaments, I think that's probably maybe the hardest battle for him. How long he can do that, obviously a guy like Sampras and Agassi have been able to do it for years. It is possible, but it's definitely not easy.

Q. Watching your US Open match against him, it appeared at least from where I was looking, that was the closest you had really come to beating him in a while. Do you feel like now, after that, you're catching up and pretty darn close to where you were when you were beating him a couple years ago?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Yeah, well, I'm definitely having to raise the level of my game. I felt like I've been able to do that the last couple of times that I played him. The US Open gave me a lot of confidence. I felt like I wasn't that far away. I had opportunities late in the second set. He came up with a couple of huge points on set points to win that second set. If you get it a set all, you get your teeth into the match with him, it can be a totally different situation. But Roger as a front-runner is one of the best I've ever seen. He can really just, you know, go from one set to whopping you in three very quickly. I was able to bounce back there. I had opportunities early in the fourth; wasn't quite able to take them. I think hopefully I'll be able to bridge that gap, as I said before, and try and take the next step in a month's time in Melbourne.

Q. Becoming a father is a real big step. What has been the biggest surprise so far?

LLEYTON HEWITT: I don't know, I think the biggest thing for me is just the amazement of seeing a child of Bec and myself born, you know, someone to look after for the rest of your life. That's probably been the most amazing thing. Just to see how she's really ours, to teach her everything we know as best as possible. It's been an amazing feeling so far.

Q. We're in the teeth of the football season here in America. What have you learned from Aussie Rules football that might help you in terms of tennis and your game?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Aussie Rules is probably for me -- obviously two different sports. The closest thing is probably my off-court training than anything, you know, try and train a lot more like an Australian Rules football player than a tennis player in a lot of ways. That I think for me there's a lot more enjoyment doing that, so it keeps me fresh off the court and keeps me very motivated when I go in the gym or do training or stuff, as well. They're obviously extremely fit athletes. The Aussie Rules football players have to run half a marathon every time they go out there and play. I've got to do that sometimes on the tennis court as well. Hopefully that training holds me in good stead.

Q. Specifically, what kind of training?

LLEYTON HEWITT: It's a lot of different stuff, whether it's boxing, running sand hills, 400s, throwing weights, VersaClimber. You do some power work, as well, but a lot of endurance.

Q. I'm interested in what you've been doing the last few weeks getting ready for the 2006 season.

LLEYTON HEWITT: Yeah, I've just been training a lot, five or six weeks now, obviously getting my body in as good of shape as possible. A lot of time spent in the gym and on the track, doing a lot of stuff. But then also now hitting a lot of balls as well, trying to get used to the Rebound Ace court here in Australia and the hot conditions. I've been fortunate. It's been extremely hot the last few weeks. I'll be well prepared going into the three tournaments, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne.

Q. What are your goals for 2006?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Not really sure. Specific goals, the biggest thing I want to put myself in contention again for the majors. Obviously, at the moment I'm not looking too far ahead beyond the Australian Open. To come so close last year, to play so many big matches, I'm looking forward to going back there and having another crack at it in Melbourne. But I'm not going to put a particular result that I want. Obviously, everyone wants to go out there and win the tournament. We all know that's not possible and only one guy's going to hold up the trophy. It's not going to be easy. It's a matter of me trying to prepare as well as possible for all four majors. Obviously, the Australian, Wimbledon, US, I feel like they're my best chances of getting up. I want to put the right foot forward before all those tournaments.

Q. A couple other guys who will be here in San Jose, James Blake and Andy Roddick. Where do you see their games at this point?

LLEYTON HEWITT: James Blake obviously has played well towards the end of the year. He had injury and illness problems last year. That's the only reason his ranking slipped down a little bit. But he's back up there now, I think in the 20s or so. He's obviously hitting the ball extremely well. He's going to be dangerous in the Australian summer in hot conditions. He's going to be dangerous. I'm sure going into San Jose, he's going to be one of the main contenders. Obviously Andy is going to be one of the main contenders, as well, being No. 3 in the world. I think he's had a pretty good year. He wouldn't have been I don't think extremely happy probably with his year this year, especially obviously losing in the first round of the US Open. That's probably the tournament he loves most, and winning it before. He's probably a little bit disappointed how the year finished off and he'll want to try and prove something early next year.

Q. Obviously, Nadal had a phenomenal year, 11 titles, French Open, a couple of Masters Series on hard courts. You yourself won a Slam for the first time, then you were able to win Wimbledon again. How tough is that so-called sophomore year after you've won your first Slam?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Yeah, it's tough. But I don't think it was that overly tough for me to go out there. I think Nadal will handle it extremely well. I don't think he'll have too many issues with it. I think obviously clay court-wise he's going to be the huge favorite going into all the Masters Series and the French Open again next year. Hard court-wise, he's shown that he's capable of winning big tournaments, but he's still got to win the big ones, obviously the Australian and the US. That's where it's going to be hard over five sets to go out and play seven best-of-five-set matches on not his favorite surface and try and beat the best players in the world on that surface. But he's a guy that he's willing to learn, he's hungry out there. He wants to become a better player. I think that's going to hold him in good stead. It's going to be hard to see him falling away too much next year, as well.

Q. What about with Safin coming into the Aussie Open after basically not having played the last six or seven months? That has to be pretty difficult.

LLEYTON HEWITT: Yeah, it's going to be difficult for him, I think. But then again, he's a player that always seems to produce a lot of his best tennis in Australia. He likes the conditions. There's no doubt that it's got to hinder him in some way not playing matches coming in, not playing a lot of matches, that's for sure. Then again, he's such a talented players, one of the most talented guys out there, that he is capable of still playing a big tournament. Probably if he gets through those first few rounds, they're probably going to be the hardest for him. If he can put himself deep in the second week, get some matches under his belt, he'll probably hit his straps and play pretty well.

Q. Are you holding any hope out that Philippoussis might rebound and come on to the Davis Cup team?

LLEYTON HEWITT: I'd love for him to get back to where his game was a couple of years ago when he made the Wimbledon final and the US Open final. It's a matter of going out there, though, and putting in the hard work and getting back to that top 20, top 30 situation. It would be fantastic for our Davis Cup team obviously to have him in it because he's a huge bonus and a huge threat against a lot of the other top countries. These days, even the average countries have two very solid players out there. Very rarely do you have just a one-man team any more. That's why Davis Cup is getting harder and harder. Obviously, the home court advantage is a huge thing to have. If we could have Flip on the team, it just adds another dimension to our team.

Q. Have you spoken to the Aussie Open officials about the surface, maybe slowing it down a little bit this year?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Slowing it down?

Q. Did you want it slower or faster?

LLEYTON HEWITT: No, I wanted it faster.

Q. Sorry about that.

LLEYTON HEWITT: They couldn't slow it down much more, I'd have to say (laughter). No, I haven't really spoken to them. I know my coach has spoken throughout the year. I don't think a whole lot's changed. For me it's just a matter of going out there and playing on what the surface is, going out there and competing, putting myself in a position to hopefully have another crack at it.

Q. What were your thoughts on Croatia going through and Ljubicic having such a great run?

LLEYTON HEWITT: I didn't see any of the Davis Cup semis or final. Obviously, it's huge for the country of Croatia, you know, to win a Davis Cup. Ljubicic had a great, fantastic run for the year. Started off by beating the two Americans, Agassi and Roddick. That wouldn't have been easy to do. He continued on, which is fantastic for him and his country.

Q. Your match is going to be the first featured match on Wednesday night in San Jose on February 15. The match that follows you is somewhat interesting in that John McEnroe is making a return to play with Bjorkman. What are your thoughts about that?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Yeah, I did hear that somewhere a couple weeks ago. Well, it's good for tennis, I think, especially in the doubles situation, to have a guy like John come back and play matches. I think it's very entertaining for the crowd. It's great for publicity of the sport. John was obviously such a huge, huge player, has done so much commentary and helped out the sport in so many ways, yeah, I think it's going to be very entertaining for him to come back and play with one of the best doubles players going around at the moment in Bjorkman. I think they'll make a pretty good team. John, from what I've heard when he was back playing doubles in his day, he had the best hands on tour and the best feel around the net. He hits so many balls at all the Grand Slams these days with a lot of the top players, I don't think he's going to lose too much. On the doubles court, he only has to cover half the court, as well, so I think he'll be fine.

Q. You coming into San Jose, obviously your sites are set on Melbourne, but if you win that title, how big would it be for you to start the year in February winning on American soil?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Yeah, it would be great, a huge kickstart to the year, I think, to get as many titles as possible early on. Hopefully I can have a good run through Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, then put myself in a position where I'm hitting the ball extremely well coming into San Jose. Obviously, the last time I was there, I've got great memories of playing a hell of a match against Andre. It will be nice to repeat that and hold the trophy up there in 2006.

Q. The USTA recently announced that the tennis participation studies show that tennis is at its all time high level in the US since 1992. Obviously, the pro game is a big part of that. Do you have any thoughts on how the pro game and the recreational player combination work together, why tennis might be growing so quickly again?

LLEYTON HEWITT: Yeah, I'm not a hundred percent sure. It's obviously great news, that's for sure. I think a lot of other countries have to learn from that, as well. We need a lot of people watching tennis and coming out and supporting it, really putting it on the map year after year. I think the first place that it has to happen is probably in the US, one of the biggest and most powerful countries. I think it's fantastic. You guys have so many big sports over there, and if we can get tennis up so much and at an all-time high, that's fantastic. I think a lot of the other countries have to take a step forward and learn from that and see what the US has done to promote the game, the USTA. We've got to try and take the same steps. If that can happen in Australia, hopefully we're going to have a lot more players, young players, coming through, having more guys in the top 50, top 20 in the world.

BILL RAPP: I really appreciate, Lleyton, you taking the time to talk with us. Also I want to thank his manager Rob Aivatoglou for putting this all together for us.

LLEYTON HEWITT: Thanks, mate. No problem.

GREG SHARKO: Lleyton, congratulations again on your new arrival in the family. Happy holidays to you and the rest of your family.


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