On a humid early-August afternoon at the 2009 Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Northwest Washington, a small crowd began to gather near the chain-link fence that enclosed the outer match courts. There on the other side of the fence was Lleyton Hewitt, a former world No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion who was relegated to playing in front of a just a few dozen fans as his ranking had tumbled due to injuries and a hip surgery earlier that year.
Tied at one set apiece in his second-round match against Israel’s Dudi Sela, Hewitt won a crucial point in the third set of a match he would end up winning. He celebrated with an uppercut fist pump and yelled “C’mon!” — a common tennis celebration he managed to make his own — loud enough that those passing by turned their heads.
It was clear that it didn’t matter to Hewitt where he was playing. He competed with the same intensity and emotion as if he were on center court vying for a Grand Slam title. Through the highs of winning major titles and the lows of several controversies that Hewitt brought on himself with his emotional style of play, Hewitt maintained the dogged personality of a fighter throughout his nearly 20-year career.
Those very same traits were on display last week at the Australian Open as Hewitt played his last professional matches. The 34-year-old Australian lost Thursday to world No. 8 David Ferrer, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4, in the second-round of the singles draw and finished his professional career with a loss Saturday in the third round of men’s doubles. Hewitt had announced last year that the tournament would be his last before retiring and tributes have been pouring in on Hewitt’s impact on the sport.
“He’s one of the best players in history,” Ferrer said during an on-court interview after the match. “I never had idols, but Lleyton is an idol for me.”
Hewitt announced his arrival at age 20 when he won the 2001 U.S. Open against American Pete Sampras, then winner of 13 Grand Slam titles. A speedy counterpuncher with a backward hat who looked shorter than his listed height of 5 feet 11 inches, Hewitt brushed aside Sampras in straight sets and appeared to be the future of tennis.
But even as Hewitt began to reach the pinnacle of his sport, controversies overshadowed his accomplishments. His brash attitude on the court — he often celebrated opponents’ unforced errors — and criticism of Australian fans made it difficult for his home country to embrace him like it does now. And then there was the second-round match against American James Blake, where Hewitt made remarks about an African American linesman that were construed as being racially motivated.
“He said there was a similarity between the line judge and myself,” Blake, the son of an African American father and a British mother, said after the match (via BBC). “My reaction was to try to win the match. It did bother me a little bit but I figured that it was in the heat of the moment when he’s fighting out there and not thinking about being politically correct. … I’ll try to give him the benefit of the doubt. He has this ‘me against the world’ attitude that makes him play better.”
Hewitt went on to win just one more Grand Slam, Wimbledon in 2002, as his status at the top coincided with the rise of a player from Switzerland named Roger Federer. Hewitt would reach the 2005 Australian Open final, but it was clear at that point that the stage belonged to Federer, who lost his first three matches against Hewitt.
“I think he really changed things around and showed me how it’s done,” the 34-year-old Federer said during last year’s U.S. Open (via The Australian). “He made me, I guess, work harder in practice, get my act together on court, play tough but fair.”
While Hewitt may have mellowed slightly in the ensuing years, he has been unable to let some habits go. During last week’s match against Ferrer, he got into arguments with chair umpire Pascal Maria and yelled “C’mon!” after several of Ferrer’s unforced errors.
But if Ferrer was affected by Hewitt’s behavior, he did not show it. When they shook hands at the net, Ferrer asked Hewitt if they could exchange shirts, like many soccer players do out of respect. During the on-court interview, Ferrer mentioned that he has a museum of signed items from athletes and the only autographed shirt of a tennis player is from Hewitt.
“I came out, I gave everything I had like always,” Hewitt said after the match to a standing ovation. “I left nothing in the locker room and that’s something I can always be proud of. My whole career I’ve given 100 percent.”
A Davis Cup stalwart throughout his playing days, Hewitt will turn his attention to his role as captain of the Australian Davis Cup team. He has served as a mentor to young Australians like Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis the last few years and is credited with helping maintain the popularity of tennis in Australia.
Kyrgios — a fiery and talented, yet controversial player who Hewitt calls the future of Australian tennis — has been reluctant to see his mentor leave the professional tour but is hoping to carry on Hewitt’s legacy.
“I’m doing everything I can to try to take over for what he’s left,” Kyrgios said after his third-round loss to Tomas Berdych. “But I’m a bit far away now. There’s a little work to do.”