He remains the youngest ever top-ranked male player in tennis. In a way, he ushered in a young, physical era of baseliners with his Wimbledon 2002 win – a tournament that had only favored serve-and-volleyers – a style that was far removed from even Andre Agassi’s well-timed baseline game. His shrill, distinctly Aussie “C’mon!” cut the air at many tournaments across the globe – and for those two years in 2001 and 2002 – a transition era between Pete Sampras’ 90s bunch and Roger Federer’s four-year monopoly, Lleyton Hewitt was unbeatable.
I remember letting tennis enter my conscience around this time, in my teens. Till then, mostly names – rather than actual games and achievements – had captured my imaginations. Sampras, Steffi Graf, Agassi, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Jimmy Connors…I had chosen my favorites without watching many of them – simply because they were icons. But I really started watching tennis around the time Lleyton Hewitt won the US Open in 2001, became World no. 1 at age 20, finished two years at the top, losing only two sets on his way to his first (and last) Wimbledon title.
I remember watching him and wondering who this kid is, and why he’s so loud, and why he’s always so pumped up and intense. This was way before the Nadal and Djokovic era, and athletes were mostly quiet let-game-do-the-talking legends till then. And then came Hewitt, who couldn’t keep quiet for more than a game on court. He wasn’t arrogant, but he was brash, confident and had immense belief in his own game. How could a 19-year old be so utterly tough – thought his contemporary, a young Roger Federer – who was more volatile than even Marat Safin back then. Federer got beaten byHewitt a lot in those early years, and he’d never be able to forget Hewitt’s come-from-behind 5-set Davis Cup win. Hewitt went on to win two season-ending Masters titles too, defeating foes David Nalbandian, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Roddick quite often.
Roddick and Hewitt were hailed as the next Sampras and Agassi – and many favored the big-serving American to dominate the Aussie in years to come.
That never happened. They both got schooled by Roger Federer for a decade. They spent their entire 20s being dominated, defeated repeatedly and exiting tournaments at the hands of the imperious Swiss master – who had discovered a new unreachable level to his game.
Hewitt’s “C’mon” never faded away though; he defeated lesser players for a while, till he once again reached the 2004 US Open Final against Federer. Many believe that it was here that Hewitt realized he would never be no. 1 again as long as Federer lived. Roddick realized it just a few months before Hewitt at Wimbledon – these are difficult pills to swallow, only because the Swiss player was suddenly so far ahead of them in every way possible.
Hewitt remains the only male player to be double-bageled in a Grand Slam Final (he lost 6-0, 7-6, 6-0), and his spirit perhaps broke enough to be irreparable after that. The only way he’d win a Slam is if he didn’t have to face Federer, or if miraculously Federer lost before facing him – so, he reached the 2005 Aussie Open Final after Federer lost to Safin in a legendary semifinal. Hewitt, an Australian legend, had reached his first final in Melbourne – the first Aussie player to do so in decade. This was surely his chance to win another Slam – perhaps his last, before Nadal began his own era. By now, Hewitt was nowhere near the level he needed to be to be in the top 10.
The best part about the 34-year old Aussie is that he went out the way everyone remembers and loves him for. He went out to perhaps the future of Aussie tennis – Bernard Tomic – in a 5-set match, after being two sets down. Again. Hewitt made a stunning comeback, frustrated Tomic, and even served for the match at 5-4 in the fifth set. Surely, he’d have a final hurrah. But he lost the next 3 games, and played the last match of his professional life. Hewitt lost in the second round of the US Open 2015, 9 years after another legendary baseliner Agassi’s body game way in the third round of theUS Open 2006. Back then, a little-known German named Benjamin Becker entered the record books for beating Agassi. This time, it’s Tomic – who is well-known, but like many other young Aussies, is known to be of fragile temperament. Who knows – perhaps this could be his deep run?
Hewitt had ended Sampras’ serve-and-volley era back in the 2001 US Open Final. His mini-resurgence in 2013 at age 32 was hailed for his insistence on a tougher baseline game – to compete with players half his age, and way fitter. Hewitt showed his skill and returned to the top 20 for the first time in years.
He finished his career with 2 Grand Slam titles, 2 Masters series titles, 2 Davis Cup victories and over 600 career singles wins, and 1 Grand Slam doubles title. He will forever be remembered as a player pointing to his eyes (focus!), knees crouched, about to let loose a few c’mons and expletives to nobody in particular. Hewitt will go down as the greatest lesser champion in men’s tennis. That he won two Slams to Roddick’s one is a telling indicator that there was nobody mentally tougher than the Aussie for those three years.