WHEN Lleyton Hewitt walks on to a Roland Garros court for his opening match at the French Open next week, it will be with steps rarely taken by a professional tennis player.
Hewitt has undergone radical surgery to prolong his career and remove the constant pain that has accompanied his every court appearance over the past two years, with two screws and a metal plate now locking permanently into place in the big toe on his left foot.
Hewitt's toe, chronically arthritic and misshapen after years of digging into hard courts to launch his service action, is now reconstructed and irreversibly fused. Whatever cartilage there was in the first metatarsophalangeal (MPT) joint has been removed and painful bone spurs shaved off. The toe no longer moves, but nor should it give Hewitt any more grief.
For the first time that he can remember, Hewitt is without pain when he begins each day. If his luck holds, he may even start finishing tennis matches the same way.
The dramatic change in outlook has prompted Hewitt to reset his remaining career sights on a full-time return to the tour this year, a competitive campaign next year, and perhaps beyond.
Hewitt's manager David Drysdale, although reluctant to discuss the medical procedure in detail, told The Weekend Australian: "The X-rays look like something out of Bunnings."
The toe fusion surgery, performed by Melbourne foot and ankle specialist Harvinder Bedi, is common enough as a remedy for degenerative arthritic conditions but extremely rare, if not unknown, for a tennis player still trying to earn a living on the professional tour.
When Hewitt was deciding whether to undergo the procedure, he was warned there was a significant chance he might not be able to play again. The biggest unknowns were whether having the toe set in place would allow Hewitt to push up into his serve or push off hard from his forehand in a baseline rally.
Hewitt opted to go under the knife anyway, reasoning he would need it at some stage for a pain-free retirement. Such was his frustration with the time he has been forced to spend off court in recent years, he calculated it was a risk worth taking.
The pay-off for Hewitt will begin in Paris, where he will return to the circuit two weeks earlier than he had planned. Although his expectations for Roland Garros are low - he has only been on the practice court for two weeks - the success of his rehabilitation has encouraged him to dedicate the rest of this year to restoring his lowly world ranking.
"The aim is certainly to play out the rest of this year and get his ranking up again and then have a good 12 months, hopefully injury free, where he can have another crack at it," Drysdale said.
"He has played spasmodically because he has had different injuries over the last three years so in some ways, it has actually protected his body. He has had time off. If anything he might be able to play a little bit longer."
At age 31, Hewitt has spent the past two weeks practising up to three times daily against former Davis Cup teammate Todd Woodbridge on a clay court at Kooyong.
As recently as four weeks ago, Hewitt had next month's grass tournament at Queen's locked in for his return to the tour, in preparation for Wimbledon and the Olympics, which are also being played at the All England Club. In a recent interview, he explained that his better-than-expected recovery from surgery and Australia's Davis Cup draw encouraged him to push hard towards Paris.
"Once I knew that the next Davis Cup tie was going to be most likely on clay in Germany. I probably pushed the boundaries a little bit more," he said.
It normally takes between six and 12 months to make a full recovery from toe fusion surgery.
Hewitt's speedy recovery will improve his chances of making inroads at Wimbledon, the tournament he won 10 years ago. It will also bolster Australia's chances of beating Germany and returning to the Davis Cup World Group.