Still combative at age 30, Lleyton Hewitt won the second set and leveled his third-round match against Milos Raonic at the Australian Open last Saturday. As the two crossed the net, Hewitt puffed his chest and stared at his young Canadian opponent, who was visibly shaken. "I wanted him to feel me a bit," Hewitt said afterward with a furtive smile. Raonic, 21, will win majors one day, but on this night he let a lesser foe enter his head, and he was knocked out of the tournament in four sets. "Maybe the match was won here," Raonic said, pointing to his temple. "I need to work on how I deal with the [big] moments."
Hear that? Physically, Grand Slam tennis is being played at an unprecedented level. This was evident last week in Melbourne as the top seeds rolled on using their superior power and speed; as players required postmatch IVs; as trainers tended to all manner of injuries. But at its core tennis is also a mental exercise, a sort of spiritual powerlifting contest. So often, matches are won because of will, not skill; nerve, not serve.
Fresh from winning the U.S. Open women's title last September, Australia's Sam Stosur was a star in Melbourne, the celebrated home favorite. Unlike her compatriot Hewitt, though, she wilted under the weight of the occasion, falling to Romania's little-known Sorana Cirstea in the first round. Afterward Stosur admitted to having been paralyzed by nerves. "I'm probably very close to crying," she said. Li Na, the Chinese star and 2011 French Open winner, did Stosur one better, breaking into tears after gagging on four match points and losing a fourth-round match to Kim Clijsters.
There is a converse here, of course: For the neurological equivalent of fitness freaks—players who possess strength of mind, an appetite for the fight—the rewards can be great. Spain's David Ferrer is among the oldest (29) and smallest (5'9") players in the men's draw. But he is persistent in the extreme, happy to grind for hours if necessary (fittingly, auto-correct changes Ferrer to ferret), and as a result he has the No. 5 ranking—not to mention a quarterfinal date with No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who eliminated Hewitt on Monday. His female equivalent is No. 8--ranked Agnieszka Radwanksa of Poland, who routinely wears down bigger, more powerful opponents and, like Ferrer, made the quarters Down Under.
Fortunately for the host nation, the next Aussie star is closer to Hewitt than to Stosur on the temperament continuum. Unaffected by playing in the main stadium, Bernard Tomic, 19, gallantly won three matches—including a five-set test of wills against No. 13 Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine—before falling to No. 3 Roger Federer on Sunday. Asked in a courtside interview how he was able to suppress his nerves and shoulder the hopes of a nation, Tomic looked perplexed. "To be honest," he said, "you can't afford to be nervous out here."