Veterans Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick are ready for another epic clash.
WHEN Lleyton Hewitt met Andy Roddick for the first time almost 11 years ago, a precocious Hewitt was en route to the No. 1 ranking and Roddick was the great American teenage prospect who would supplant Hewitt at the top in 2003.
Hewitt and Roddick won their majors and became top dogs during the interregnum between the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era and the joint rule of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Roddick's career, in particular, was more or less ''Rogered'', as Federer foiled the American three times in the Wimbledon final, and once in the US Open decider.
Tellingly, tonight's meeting is the second round, not a semi-final. It is the first encounter when neither Hewitt nor Roddick is ranked inside the top 10. At No. 16, Roddick remains within a few good wins of getting back there. Hewitt has fallen harder - he is ranked 181, having played a meagre 20 matches last year.
This match, thus, has an element of a high school reunion: neither is physically what he was, the occasion carries considerable nostalgia, yet on another level, nothing much has changed. It remains a contest between a huge server and a returner, a power player and a retriever, an aggressor and a fierce defender.
''His strengths are still pretty much the same,'' Hewitt said.
If Hewitt's ranking tells a tale, Roddick says ''numbers go out the door'' when he plays his Australian rival, who won six of their first seven encounters but has lost the past six.
''I don't pay much attention to it when it comes to Lleyton,'' Roddick said. ''He knows how to win tennis matches. He's a fighter. I have as much respect for him as I do for anybody in the game.
''I've won the most recent meetings, but I think out of the six, four or five have gone the distance to the last set. We always have a bit of a war. I probably don't see it [tonight] as being any different.''
In their dotage, Hewitt and Roddick have paid for pounding their bodies over long careers. Roddick observed that it was the miles on the clock, rather than their ages, that had hurt them.
''I don't put too much stock in a number, an age. It's more about miles. We both had success from an early age. We were playing full seasons by the time we were, for him 16, for me, 18. There are a lot of parallels between us on a lot of levels.''
Hewitt's decline has been steeper than Roddick's, hence the American's favouritism tonight. As tennis commentator, the former American player and Roddick's friend Justin Gimelstob explained, Roddick's powerful assets - his serve in particular - have remained more intact than Hewitt's strength, his speed.
''Hewitt's a great competitor, Roddick's a great competitor, but Roddick has more firepower and that firepower has maintained longer than Hewitt's best asset, his speed. But that being said, [tonight's] still a match-up where anything could happen. Lleyton has the home-crowd edge. Roddick is a little fresher.'' Gimelstop's prediction is Roddick in four sets.
At first glance, Hewitt's results against Roddick appear as a marker of his gradual decline. He beat Roddick for the sixth time - and the third time in a major - in a storied semi-final here in 2005.
He hasn't beaten Roddick since the middle of that year. Most of the past half-dozen losses, as both players noted, have been close, including a five-setter at Wimbledon in 2009.
''Just haven't been able to get those one or two points against him when I needed them,'' Hewitt said.
The stakes aren't quite as high as when they were kings. Older, wiser, slower they may be, but the players' hearts will jump at the prospect of the reunion.