Well quite a late tribute to perhaps the most recent legendary Australian to have played the sport, but the timing has been deliberate on my part to make the readers aware of his place in men’s tennis of which he was a prominent in his formative years but a forgotten figure in the later. It always needs a little darkness to spot those far-away stars or a little silence to feel the murmurs. With the buzz of the season’s first Slam dying down, let’s shift the focus from the brighter stars to one that few noticed through the last decade.
Lleyton Hewitt played his swansong in a second-round defeat to Spain’s David Ferrer in the just concluded Australian Open. More specifically, his final court appearance came three days later in the men’s doubles round 3, reminding of a trivia that the US Open 2000 doubles champion is the most recent male tennis player to win a Grand Slam in both singles and doubles. With that ended all those stimulating chants of “Come on!” in between the points.
Hewitt won a total 30 titles in singles. Out of those 30, 22 came at ATP 250 events, and 2 each at the Grand Slams, Tour Finale, Masters 1000 and ATP 500. In addition he came second-best on 16 other occasions. In 1997, the Australian became the youngest player to qualify for the main draw of the Australian Open – a month shy of his 16th birthday at the time. The sensational teenager also became the youngest in the Open era to win a Slam in doubles. He was also the first Australian player to achieve the world no. 1 in singles.
Hewitt came runner-up at the Wimbledon mixed doubles event in 2000 partnering multiple Grand Slam winner and Belgian tennis star, Kim Clijsters – with whom he had one time serious relationship. His first Slam at the US Open in 2001 came en route to beating former no. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the semis and a straight set final victory over four-time champion Pete Sampras. He won the Wimbledon the following year. He also finished runner-up back-to-back in the US Open 2004 and the Australian Open 2005. He won two consecutive year-end championships in 2001 and 2002.
Till that Indian Wells final in March 2005 – a point probably from where Hewitt started losing the plot, when he lost to Roger Federer in straight sets, the 2001 and 2002 ATP player of the year had won 24 titles (the 24th coming at Sydney in January). From 2006 onwards, he could reach only 10 finals and win 6 titles – all in ATP 250 events. He also made just 2 more semi-finals and 3 quarter-finals at the Majors since 2005 Australian Open final loss to Marat Safin. He could register only 10 victories over the Top 10 in this lean period as compared to 55 he had done till then. The man with 616-262 career win-loss record, once had a 7-2 record against Federer, but eventually he settled for a 9-18. The ascendancy of Federer and followed by the emergence of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray made the life of two-time Davis Cup champion and runner-up (respectively) on the tour difficult. All that he could possibly do after 2005 was flicker under the dazzling dominance of this quartet.
The maverick Aussie had his shares of controversies as well – making racist slurs to a linesman during 2001 US Open, another run-up with a French Open match official and directing gay-jibes to a Davis Cup official worth-mentioning from his list of banes.
Hewitt is regarded as a player who prefers playing from the baseline. He however had a great volley and a reputation of perfecting the overhead smashes. Andre Agassi described Hewitt as one of the greatest shot selectors in his autobiography. The man who played most five-setters at the Grand Slam will certainly be remembered for his never-say-die attitude in the late decade of his distinguished career dominated by some unassailable tennis from his top-ranked rivals – the earlier decade of course belongs to the Adelaide-born hero.
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