Hewitt finally hangs up his cap
After falling in the second round of the Australian Open to David Ferrer, Lleyton Hewitt has finally brought an end to his 18-year career as a tennis professional. With two Grand Slams, two Masters, two Davis Cups and the achievement of being the youngest world No.1 in history, he was one of the players who shaped the opening of the new millennium, in between the Sampras – Agassi years and the Federer – Nadal era. Despite all his best efforts, he was also one of the most recent stars to have a real Achilles heel when it came to a particular surface – in his case, clay. Here however, we pay homage to the man whom Roger Federer described as a "benchmark" and Rafael Nadal as an "example".
"I am proud of my career. I always gave it everything I'd got, 100%. And if I didn't win more matches, it was because I wasn't in a position to. And now it's over. I'm going to need a few days for it to sink in that I'm no longer a professional tennis player." With his trademark backwards baseball cap as he spoke calmly to on-court interviewer Jim Courier, Lleyton Hewitt managed to hide his emotions as he addressed the 15,000 fans on Rod Laver Arena, but as his final foe David Ferrer said, it was "a sad day for tennis, the end of an idol". No more will we hear "Come oooon!" – another of his calling-cards – ringing out around stadiums the world over. After starting out as a teen with a little too much strut in his step for the big guns he was looking to unseat – Pete Sampras and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in particular called him out for a perceived lack of respect – the Australian hung up his racquet 20 years later having elicited admiration from all sides at the end of an exemplary career. And if you had to resume in one phrase what changed the cocky youngster into a universally-respected adult, it would be fighting spirit.
At a time when the Hewitt chapter in the annals of tennis is coming to a close, that tenacity will be what people remember first and foremost – a willingness to put up a fight, both against the player on the opposite side of the net and in the face of the innumerable injuries which blighted his career from the age of 25. What with his aching hip, back, knee and foot, he is the very image of his favourite movie figure Rocky Balboa – indeed, he asked for the stadium sound system to play "Eye of the Tiger" when he was crowned world No.1 after his victory at the Masters in 2001! And like the character played by Sylvester Stallone, Hewitt kept getting back on his feet, playing through the pain. If ever there were a ranking list drawn up based on the fighting spirit shown on a tennis court, the Australian would certainly bag a spot on the podium alongside the likes of the indefatigable Jimmy Connors and Rafael Nadal.
Federer: "Lleyton was the benchmark that we were all trying to achieve"
Roger Federer came through the ranks at the same time as the youngest ever world No.1 (at the age of 20 years and 8 months), and he certainly acknowledges the role played by Hewitt in his own career path. "To begin with, there were lots of us promising youngsters trying to make a name for ourselves: Andy (Roddick), Ferrero, Safin… But Lleyton was special," explains the Swiss. "He was the most advanced of all of us, so he was the benchmark that we were all trying to achieve. He won the singles in Adelaide when I was trying to get him to play the junior doubles with me at the Australian Open! We were together a lot on the Tour, right from our very first match in juniors in Zurich, at the age of 15. He was a fighter out on court, but in a good way and with the right mentality. I've always admired his work ethic and his fighting spirit. He was the one who caused me the most problems to begin with. He really had the wood on me. He made me go and think about my game, and that pushed me to become a better player."
Though he won the US Open (2001), Wimbledon (2002), the Masters twice (2001, 2002) and the Davis Cup (1999, 2003), Hewitt never enjoyed the same success at Roland-Garros, but he still showed the same never-say-die spirit on clay that he did on other surfaces. Despite being part of the last generation to date of champions who have a hatred of one surface or another – think Roddick on clay or Safin on grass – Hewitt had no qualms about playing on red dirt at the outset of his career. His problem was far more basic than that – being a counter-puncher (who had few equals when it came to passing shots in general and lobs in particular, as the great Pete Sampras himself would gladly testify after losing to the Australian in the finals of the US Open and Queen’s), his lack of power was amplified on clay. Hewitt could read an opponent's game, anticipate, mix it up, get around the court and run until he had worn out the soles of his shoes, but he did not have a heavy or powerful stroke, making it almost impossible for him to hit a winner on the slowest of surfaces.
His finest moment on clay – defeating Kuerten's Brazil in the Davis Cup
Despite this handicap, Hewitt showed his stubborn side and vowed to try, try, try again on clay, never sacrificing it on the altar of more accessible ambitions. For many years, he found himself in limbo, winning – as he should – against players of a lower calibre, either the lesser clay specialists or those who did not like the surface, but never managing to overcome the genuine dirt-ballers. He never made so much as the semis at Roland-Garros, reaching the quarters twice and the Round of 16 four times, but there is certainly nothing to be ashamed of when you look at those who knocked him out: Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Guillermo Canas, Tommy Robredo, Gaston Gaudio, David Ferrer, and of course Rafael Nadal, no fewer than four times in five years (2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010)!
None of his 30 career titles came on European clay, where he never managed to make it through to a final. He did however lift two trophies on the green American har-tru clay (Delray Beach 1999, Houston 2009), which is a tad quicker than the surface on the old continent. And in the Davis Cup, in front of the kind of passionate crowds that spurred him on while others crumbled under pressure, he enjoyed his finest hours on the red stuff, defeating Albert Costa indoors in Barcelona in the 2000 final, then seeing off Gustavo Kuerten's Brazil almost single-handedly during a crazy weekend in Florianopolis (2001).
Taking the passion to the next level
His other exploits on clay included the ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Hamburg in 2007. His career had peaked long before that, but he still managed to see off such dangerous adversaries as Agustin Calleri, Juan Ignacio Chela, Nikolay Davydenko and Nicolas Almagro before coming within a whisker of defeating Rafael Nadal in the semis (2-6, 6-3, 7-5) in what ended up being the last of the record 81 consecutive wins which the Majorcan reeled off on clay. Speaking of Rafa, he too cites "Rusty" as one of the few players he modelled his game on, "I always saw him as an example, and I think that that is exactly what he should be for any kids who want to grow up to be top tennis players," says Nadal. "He is a source of inspiration for everyone: he had to come to terms with success at a very young age, when he was still a kid really, and then he had a lot of injuries, but he battled right to the end, with the exact same passion for the game."
Indeed, Hewitt's passion for the game is such that he can barely spend a minute away – the newly-minted retiree will be taking over as Australian Davis Cup captain as of March, continuing his love affair with a competition to which he dedicated so much of his time, and which gave him so much in return. "The greatest memory I have of my career might well be the day when I got my Australian team jacket from John Newcombe and Tony Roche, two incredible players. To be on an equal footing with them now is a real source of pride," he says. In a country where the history of the sport is revered, the time has come for him to step up to the next level as captain of the Davis Cup team – the once enfant terrible of the tennis world will now be in charge of a generation every bit as rambunctious as he was at their age. And just as he benefited from the calming influence of Pat Rafter back in the day, the likes of Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis will be able to look up to Lleyton Hewitt to help them along the road. After all, his career and his achievements make him the ideal role model.