Before Rafael Nadal, Lleyton Hewitt was the muscular, bulky, all action figure in tennis. Today, when the South Australian stands on the cusp of his last visit to Wimbledon, seems like as good a time as any to write the eulogy to a glorious career which will walk away into the sunset after being a glorious servant to the game for almost 2 decades.
Modern day players pride themselves over the amount of power they can put in their shots, their speed, their court coverage etc. It won’t be a far shot to claim that Lleyton Hewitt is one of the progenitors of this sort of game. As much was obvious when Andy Murray tweeted yesterday how Hewitt was one of his idols, growing up, and how he’ll miss the Aussie powerhouse and his trademark ‘Common!’. Much like Nadal, Hewitt has always been a defensive counterpuncher, who likes to sit back and make his chances from the baseline itself. A quick serve, two-handed backhand and a flat forehand compliment this style of play.
Hewitt’s Wimbledon journey, ironically, started as a Doubles partner to perhaps his favourite friend/foe-Roger Federer. Over the years, before the present day Big Four came along, Federer-Hewitt was always the match to look out for. 2 top pros, classy in their own unique ways, strutting it out at the prime of their careers in contrasting styles. Federer’s nonchalant elegance, and Hewitt’s never-say-never attitude always made these ties worth the money spent. Personally, it was always the match I waited for, Roddick was too weak of a backhand to stand upto Federer, Andre Agassi was getting too old and Marat Safin was never my favourite! Thus, it seems only fitting that the last man to win Wimbledon, before the present quartet of ‘Big Four’ came into existence, is Lleyton Hewitt, winning at SW19 in 2002, as a 21 year old.
Back then, he was the one making all the right noises, as a youngster. Riding on his 2000 Mixed Doubles final appearance, at Wimbledon with his then girlfriend, Kim Clijsters, Hewitt went on to clinch the Singles crown at Flushing Meadows in 2001. He followed that up with his maiden Wimbledon crown the next year when he made short work of Argentine David Nalbandian. In the process, he achieved the distinction of being the youngest World No. 1,when he reached the pinnacle at the tender age of 20. In modern game, Hewitt is the only pro with a Grand Slam title in the Singles as well as men’s Doubles category, won with Max Mirnyi at US Open 2000. Over the years, Hewitt could never reach the dizzying heights of his early successes again, especially at Wimbledon, where Roger Federer decided to reinvent the very definitions of graceful, elegant and champion. A SF appearance in 2005,along with 2 QF ones on either side of ’05, is all he has to show for his exploits here, in London.
As Hewitt’s last appearance at Wimbledon looms, where he isn’t expected to last long since he has a potential second round clash against Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer was effusive in praise for his long time foe, lavishing what may be the ultimate send-off to him, labeling him as someone who showed the way to many youngsters as to how it is done. “I played him in Wimbledon’s Hertogenbosch, Halle, played him on grass as well in Davis Cup in Sydney,” Federer said.
“It’s been always tough against him on this surface. I think for a baseliner, he was the first guy really from the baseline to have such a major impact as well.
“Plus he’s a smaller guy. It was dominated by the big servers for a while. Back then, (Ivan) Lendl, (Jim) Courier, they had to really volley to have success. They did it very well.
“But Lleyton was really every point from the baseline. For him to win Wimbledon and have the career he had on the grass is quite unbelievable.
It showed an entire generation how it can be done.”
He also revealed how it was always a pleasure to watch the Australian, though playing him wasn’t as joyous! “I practiced here again with him,” Federer.
“It just shows why he’s so tough. He hits that flat ball, helps his serve, unbelievable slice, good at net, he’s fast, low to the ground. He’s got so many things going for him.
“I’ve always enjoyed watching him. Playing against him has been cool at times, not always so much fun.
“A feisty competitor, one of the toughest I always had to play against.
“I wish that he can play a good match, a good tournament, that he can enjoy Wimbledon after for what it is, and I’m sure he will.”
As a young kid watching in 2005, it was heartbreaking to see Hewitt fail at the final frontier, in his quest for glory on home soil in the Australian Open, as Marat Safin wrest the title in 4 sets. In hindsight, it seems all the more sadder, as this was the closest he would ever come. Injuries always got in the way of Hewitt reaching his prime again, in the later stages of his career. Today, as Hewitt gets ready for his swansong, it is only correct to point out that more than his Grand Slam count, history will always judge the blue eyed blond kindly as one of the guys who paved the way for modern day tennis, as we know it.