It may seem like pie-in-the-sky stuff, but Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt haven’t completely ruled out teaming up in Davis Cup after accepting a wildcard into the Australian Open doubles.
Rafter, who turned 41 last month, will emerge from more than a decade in retirement from the ATP Tour to reunite with Hewitt for the first time since they lost the pivotal doubles rubber in Australia’s Davis Cup final defeat to France in Melbourne back in 2001.
Now Cup captain, Rafter’s loss to Hewitt in his last-ever singles match a week earlier at the season-ending Masters Cup in Sydney also clinched Hewitt the world No.1 ranking for the first time.
Twelve years and one month on, Rafter and Hewitt will pair up against American Eric Butorac and South African Raven Klaasen in the first round of the doubles at Melbourne Park.
Despite both playing Rafter’s comeback down, the timing couldn’t be more suspicious with Australia taking on France in France the weekend after the Open in their long-awaited return to the Davis Cup World Group for the first time since 2007.
Australia’s doubles options are limited, with Hewitt in recent years having to carry the full load of singles and doubles duties.
Asked if they’d consider rekindling their Davis Cup partnership if they went well this week, Hewitt said: “I doubt it. We won’t have anybody to sit on the side of the court. We can’t do that”.
Rafter was equally coy when the Davis Cup theory was put to him.
“I hope not. There would have to be food poisoning, sicknesses. That would be my worst nightmare,” he said.
Hewitt, who even gatecrashed Rafter’s press conference to joke about the one-time world No.1’s comeback, maintained playing doubles together at the Open with his long-time friend was “just a bit of fun”.
“I actually asked him a little while ago,” Hewitt said.
“He still hits a lot at the Davis Cup ties, works us out a bit. Yeah, it’s just a bit of fun.
“It will be nice on my off days – hopefully I’m still in the singles – to go out and play dubs with Pat.
“He’s hitting the ball well enough. He beat Ivanisevic and Henman and those guys over in the seniors tour.”
An ITF spokesman said Rafter was eligible to play at the Open because he never actually retired from the Tennis Anti-Doping Program.
If he had, the two-time US Open champion would have had to apply for a return and wait three months for an all-clear.
“I obviously looked up to Pat a hell of a lot growing up,” Hewitt said.
“He really helped me out. It’s great that he’s Davis Cup captain for me now, as well. Most likely I’ll finish my career with him as Davis Cup captain, which is fantastic for me as well.
“While we’re still able to move around the court together, it’s nice we can go out there and play in a grand slam.”
Unbeaten in six matches this summer and full of confidence after knocking over Roger Federer in Brisbane and Andy Murray at the Kooyong Classic, Hewitt will open his 18th straight singles bid in Melbourne on Tuesday against Italian 24th seed Andreas Seppi.
Meanwhile, the new wave of teenage Australian men’s tennis players do not plan on letting an absence of Australian Open experience stop them doing some damage after gaining wildcard entry to the tournament.
Last year Nick Kyrgios, 18, and Thanasi Kokkinakis, 17 played off in the boys’ final at Melbourne Park, with Kyrgios triumphant.
This year, that pair and 19-year-old Jordan Thompson will all be making their main draw debuts after being handed wildcards.
All three have already claimed scalps which have them confident they can win matches at the Open, not just gain experience.
Kyrgios, who couldn’t play any warm-up events because of a shoulder injury, already boasts one grand slam match win, having upset former world No.8 Radek Stepanek in the first round of last year’s French Open.
Kokkinakis warmed up for his Open debut by downing world No.31 Jeremy Chardy and No.34 Ivan Dodig over the past week at an exhibition event in Adelaide.
And Thompson notched a win over world No.42 Juan Monaco at the Kooyong Classic in Melbourne.
“There’s a lot of guys, not only me and Thanasi, but Jordan Thompson just to name another guy who has been stepping up and taking it to the top guys as well,” Kyrgios told reporters at Melbourne Park on Sunday.
“I think we’re more than capable of doing some damage.”
Kyrgios and Kokkinakis have been helped by the draw, as two of just three Australian men to be facing unseeded opponents in the first round.
Kyrgios will meet German world No.81 Benjamin Becker, who has lost in the first round in three of his previous six Opens.
Kokkinakis takes on Dutch world No.73 Igor Sijsling, who lost his only previous Australian Open main draw match last year.
“I’ve beaten some good players the last couple of weeks, so that gives me confidence, especially for this first round,” Kokkinakis said.
He and Kyrgios both play on Tuesday, with Thompson to face Polish 20th seed Jerzy Janowicz on Monday.