It is always a sad day for any sport when an icon, or maybe even just someone that you grew up watching and admiring, decides to retire. All good things must come to an end as the old cliché goes and 2016 saw the curtain drawn on what was a great career for one of the best tennis players that Australia has ever produced. Lleyton Hewitt, or Rusty as he is affectionately known, was one of a kind and the world of tennis lost a superb ambassador of the sport that every fan admired and enjoyed watching, when he decided to hang up his racket for the very last time.
Born in Adelaide in 1981, Hewitt was raised in a very sport orientated household as both parents and his younger sister were all involved in sport in some way or another. It is reasonable to believe that this environment was a huge factor in moulding Hewitt into the highly competitive person that he proved to be during his time on tour. His desire to win, his never say die attitude and his clear love for his country meant that it wasn't just Australians who were cheering him on but the neutrals too. Every time he shouted 'come on!', you couldn't help but get behind him.
If you ask people when they first realised that Hewitt was destined for big things you may hear the story of how he won the US Open in 2001, defeating Andy Roddick, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and ultimately, Pete Sampras on his way to his first Grand Slam title. If you ask someone from the UK the same question, they may tell you how he won Wimbledon in 2002, defeating home favourite Tim Henman in the semi finals, before sailing to victory against David Nalbandian in the final. It could be argued however, that the writing was on the wall even before those memorable heroics.
In 1999 Australia turned to Hewitt for the Davis Cup and after defeating Todd Martin and Alex O'Brien in the second round, he was again given the call for the semi final tie against Russia. The Russians were a strong team, consisting of Australian Open champion Kafelnikov and a young Marat Safin, the new prospect of Russian tennis. The very first tie of the semi final saw Hewitt play Safin in what would would prove to be a match between two future Grand Slam champions. Hewitt took the match in four sets before defeating Kafelnikov in straight sets. It was four matches and four wins for Hewitt who was turning his countries Davis Cup fortunes around.
In December 1999 Australia were crowned Davis Cup champions and although Hewitt lost both matches in the final, (those two losses would be followed by just 12 more singles defeats in an 18 year Davis Cup career) his heroics against Russia and the USA were a huge part of their success that year. His commitment to the Davis Cup was something really quite rare in recent years as many top players decide against representing their country to focus on the tour. This was never an option for Hewitt as year after year he would be proud to represent Australia and even managed to win the title on two occasions. His five set victory in the 2003 semi finals over Roger Federer must go down as one of his greatest triumphs for his country. Australia won that tie 3-2 and went on to win the title.
His Davis Cup exploits will be remembered by many and with two Grand Slam singles titles, two ATP Tour Finals titles, a Grand Slam doubles title and 80 weeks spent as world number one, there are many other tales of glory where Hewitt is the star. The internet is littered with quotes from other top tennis players who have all paid tribute to his work ethic, his attitude on court and his talent but it is also his personality that has won him so many fans over the years as he has often shown his sense of humour in more recent times (see here).
Interviews with the man himself also provided a great insight into his mentality. He has described how he was a lover of Australian Rules Football and in particular the team aspect and that goes a long way to explaining his passion for the Davis Cup, for which he has played more ties than any other Australian. Most top players have a burning will to win but many are able to prevent themselves from showing any emotion on court. Hewitt would often let his passion spill over into his game and whilst that may not always be the best tactic as a player, it certainly wins the crowd over.
I was lucky enough to witness, first hand, the appreciation that Australia has for Hewitt in Melbourne in 2016. It was his 20th, and last, appearance at the Australian Open and after defeating James Duckworth in straight sets in the first round, he was scheduled to play David Ferrer in round two. Ferrer's powers have shown signs of waning over the last few years and there was clearly a feeling in Melbourne that Hewitt, with the home crowd on his side, could produce an upset. It was a big occasion for a player who thrived under those conditions.
I did not have a ticket for the day he played Ferrer but in the city centre, in Federation Square, there was a huge screen and lots of open plan space to sit in the sun and watch the tennis. Needless to say that space quickly disappeared as hundreds of people descended upon Fed Square to watch Hewitt in what everyone hoped would not be his last Grand Slam match. It wasn't to be as Ferrer showed his class by defeating Hewitt in straight sets. The crowd in Fed Square cheered every point that the Aussie won and although he could not find a way to breakdown the Spaniard, you never gave up the belief that he could turn it round andbe part of an epic five set marathon.
Although Hewitt lost that night, he received a standing ovation from the crowd for both his chasing of every single ball, when Ferrer clearly had the beating of him, and also creating great memories for every fan over a glittering career. I found myself wondering who the Australian fans would get behind in future years like they did with Hewitt that night and I genuinely struggled. Bernard Tomic continues to disappoint at Grand Slam level, Nick Kyrgios, is always one incident away from self destructing and John Millman is solid but hardly in the same league.
Hewitt was the last Australian man to win a Grand Slam singles title and with Samantha Stosur edging ever closer to retirement, we will soon be in a situation where there is no Australian tennis player on tour with a Grand Slam singles title to their name. The country is crying out for another great player and with a home Grand Slam tournament, there should be plenty of players desperate to fill the void that Hewitt has left.
Some people will argue that Hewitt wasn't a great of the game and that he wasn't at the top of his game long enough like a Federer or Nadal but his record speaks for itself. He won as many Grand Slam singles titles as Pat Rafter and Marat Safin and one more than Carlos Moya or Andy Roddick. For me it is about more than just statistics and titles with Hewitt. It is also about the legacy and the entertainment that he provided during his career. It would be fascinating to know just how many young people picked up a tennis racket because they wanted to be like Lleyton Hewitt with the backwards baseball cap and the fiery determination. Not every tennis fan will have a Pat Rafter or Carlos Moya memory, but I bet each and everyone of you has a Lleyton Hewitt memory and that is what makes someone special.
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