Lleyton Hewitt is one of the most tenacious men every to lift a tennis racquet. Standing only 5’10’’, the diminutive Australian, somewhat surprisingly, helped usher in the modern men’s game dominated by baseline rallies. Hewitt’s natural style is that of a defensive counterpuncher, renowned for his uncanny ability to put balls into play that would be beyond the reach of most players.
Much of Hewitt’s success came at the beginning of his career. He was the youngest man to ever become world number 1, a feat he accomplished at the age of 20. The Aussie reached that position after winning the U.S. Open, in the process defeating then 4 time champion Pete Sampras in the final. That match was a display of contrasting generations and styles. Sampras, powerfully built, mature, and experienced deployed his practiced serve-volley style which, even then, was beginning to go out of fashion. Hewitt, gracile, lightning fast, and camped out on the baseline, found a way to reach shots that should have been clean winners, and produced precision ball-striking when most needed to pass Sampras.
Hewitt backed up his achievement at Flushing Meadows by dominating the men’s game through 2002 and into 2003 spending a total of 80 weeks at world number 1. In that time, he won two Year End Championships (now called World Tour Finals), brought the Davis Cup title home for Australia, won Wimbledon, and amassed a convincing lead in the head to head against his contemporary, Roger Federer. In their first 9 meetings, Federer won 2 matches to Hewitt’s 7. Though Federer would go on to surpass his early nemesis in career accomplishments and head to head (Federer would win 16 of the next 18 matches the two contended) he still reserves the utmost respect for Hewitt. When asked by ATPWorldTour.com about his greatest rivals in 2015, Federer did not hesitate to single Hewitt out alongside Andre Agassi as a player who challenged him to find his best game early in his career. In advance of the 2016 Australian Open, Federer in his press conference stated, “Lleyton was something special, no doubt about it…Lleyton made me figure out my game, made me definitely a better player as well and I enjoyed the battles with him…I always admired his fighting spirit.”
The impact that Hewitt had on the game is still felt. Playing in an era when tennis was moving ever farther from the net and closer to the baseline, Hewitt showed how effective a counterpunching player could be. Lacking the power of his main competitors, Hewitt perfected precision shot making from the back of the court built on the solid foundation of his quick movement. For a man well below the average height of most top tennis players – he was the shortest world number 1 since Jimmy Connors – Hewitt had to rely on his court coverage to prevail against harder hitting opponents.
Hewitt played many great matches during his career. The intermittent injury troubles he suffered, and his subsequent drop in form, did not prevent him from still conjuring great plays against tough opponents. During his heyday, Hewitt bested all time greats, and lost close matches to the best of the best. Here are a few of his most memorable matches.
Hewitt vs. Safin, Australian Open Final 2005 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 4-6
2005 was an unlucky year for Hewitt, and most other male tennis players. Roger Federer, who began to dominate the tour in 2004, continued his winning ways. However, a lights-out performance in the semifinals of the Australian Open saw the defending champion ousted by powerful Russian, Marat Safin. The final between Safin and Hewitt would be the last not to feature a member of the “Big 4” until 2014. Hewitt fell in 4 stunning, up and down sets. It was the beginning of a 2005 campaign during which Hewitt had the ignominious distinction of being the first man to lose to the eventual winner of all four grand slams.
Hewitt vs. Sampras, U.S. Open 2001 7-6(4), 6-1, 6-1
This match cemented Hewitt’s position in tennis. Defeating Sampras at the American’s home slam in convincing style at the age of 20, Hewitt began his reign as world number 1. To date, Hewitt is tenth on the list of all time weeks at world number 1.
Hewitt vs. Roddick, U.S. Open 2001 (5)6-7, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4
Hewitt overcame two generations of American talent at the 2001 U.S. Open. In the quarterfinals, Hewitt had to fight through a tough 5 set match against Andy Roddick, a match that required every ounce of his skill as a returner.
Hewitt vs. Del Potro, U.S. Open 2013 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-1
Hewitt had not been a factor in grand slam play for almost 8 years when the 2013 edition of the U.S. Open got under way. Other than a Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance in 2009, he had not managed anything better than a fourth round showing since 2006. Hewitt beat the then world number 6 even after going 2 sets to 1 down. In the victory, Hewitt showed that he still possessed all the grit and shot making ability that had won him his U.S. Open title 12 years earlier.
Hewitt vs. Nalbandian, Australian Open 2005 6-3, 6-2, 1-6, 3-6, 10-8
Hewitt prevailed in 5 thrilling sets against one of his greatest competitors. After taking the opening two sets, his form dipped but finally after an overtime fifth set, Hewitt prevailed.
In 2014, Hewitt won what seems destined to be the 30th and final title of his career. Fittingly he was playing in Australia against one of his greatest rivals. Defeating Roger Federer in a three set match to win the ATP 250 held in Brisbane, Hewitt provided a fitting conclusion to his career. However, in true Hewitt fashion, he fought on. Now, two years later in 2016, after contesting his 20th consecutive Australian Open, Hewitt will retire from competitive tennis. Hewitt will be remembered as one of the greatest fighters in tennis history. His willingness to stay on the professional tour and keep working on his game after numerous injury setbacks, and long after falling from the elite of the game, demonstrates his grit and perseverance. The impact of his playing style, and the spirit he brought to tennis will be remembered for years to come. Who knows what magic he could create in his final grand slam appearance. If the past is any indication, he might surprise us all.