By Jane Voigt
Lleyton Hewitt hasn’t always been one of Australia’s favorite native sons.
Expectations from a country defined by its tennis and known for legendary heroes such as two-time Grand Slam great, Rod Laver, have landed far short. And it’s not because of his record.
Hewitt won the Men’s Doubles title in his first-ever U. S. Open alongside Max Mirnyi in 2000.
“Yep, that was my first trip here,” Hewitt told Jon Wertheim, on Tennis Channel’s Breakfast at the Open a couple days ago, a brevity to his comment that perfectly reflects his personality. “Played doubles with Max. Didn’t know him then and haven’t played with him since, and won’t play doubles again.”
In 2001, Hewitt won the singles championship in New York and followed that up in 2002 with a Wimbledon crown. The ATP awarded him Player of the Year both in 2001 and 2002. And, he holds the honor of being the youngest player, at 20, to ever be ranked #1, which we will probably never see again.
All records aside, which have placed him on many ‘top’ lists, it’s Hewitt himself, an amalgamation of pride, intensity, and cheeky behavior, that has gotten under the skins of the most tolerant of fans, tour fellows, and the tennis punditry.
That is until his rise from the operating room tables most recently for several surgeries on his left big toe. It had no cartilage and now a steel plate makes it totally immobile.
Try walking around the living room and not moving your big toe. Now think about the movement any 14-year-old club junior exerts on court, amp that up a million decibels and you have what’s necessary to get through one game on the men’s tour.
Asked about his feet in an earlier press conference this week after calling a trainer to court Friday in a 5-set win over Gilles Muller, Hewitt said, “Don’t know if I’d call it an injury. Yeah, just filling the sock up with a bit of blood. Just needed to get them taped and a little bit of padding to relieve it a little bit. Yeah, just got it sorted out.”
So, yes … sympathy has trumped Hewitt’s bad-boy stats, one of the most egregious incidents occurring at the Open eleven years ago when he faced American favorite James Blake on Armstrong Stadium, the same site as today’s battle with Spaniard and #4-seed, David Ferrer.
That sunny day in 2001, Hewitt was called for two foot faults in one game. At the changeover he complained to the chair, asking that the linesman be removed, adding, “Look at him. Look at him and you tell me what the similarity is. Just get him off the court.”
The linesman was black and Blake is black. The insinuation was obvious and racist, according to many. The incident provoked legal complications, which dragged on for years, and Hewitt eventually apologized to Blake.
With age and wisdom from Hewitt et al, the Aussie has, instead, become an icon of courage and fanatical determination. In January, 2012, after his loss to eventual Australian Open champ Novak Djokovic, the country’s Herald Sun noted that Hewitt demanded, ‘a painkilling injection to get him on court.’
In addition to a board-stiff toe, Hewitt has had two hip surgeries. Basically, he’s a walking bionic man that can tuck away pain to a dimension of his mind ninety-nine percent of the human population never recognizes.
But his lack of match play pushed his ranking outside the top 100, where it rests today at #125 requiring a wildcard to enter this year’s Open.
This afternoon not many fans inside Armstrong stadium noticed Hewitt’s slight limp as he went to the sideline. Why would they?
He had lost set one in a 11-9 tiebreak where David Ferrer saved three set points, and then came back all thunderous might to break Ferrer and win set two.
“Fiery” Fred Stolle, Australian International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee and commentator for the match on U. S. Open Live, noted his ‘sweaty palms’ as Hewitt fought on, lacing ‘a Tony Roche special’ over the net to win a struggle-of-a-point. Roche coaches Hewitt.
Daren Cahill, one of Hewitt’s former coaches, tweeted his enthusiasmhash-tagging it #LittleBeastvsRusty.
Crowds cheered more for Hewitt than for the eventual winner, Ferrer, seeded #4, too.
In set three Ferrer’s relentless hustle and consistent placement of shots, wore down Lleyton ‘Rusty’ Hewitt. Ferrer closed out the match in the fourth, moving to the round of sixteen — 76(9) 46 63 60, in three-and-a-half hours.
“He can hold his head high,” Stolle said, as Hewitt tucked into the tunnel of Armstrong stadium. “He doesn’t want to hear anything about retirement in his press conferences.”
At 31, Hewitt has every right to call it a career after 14 years. He burst on the scene in 1998 shocking Andre Agassi and living in a time when Australia had eight players in the top 100 and now has three.
He is a multi-millionaire, is married to Australian TV star Bec Cartwright, and has three children, the second named Cruz Lleyton Hewitt.
“It was fantastic,” Hewitt said, characterizing the fifth set with Muller. “That’s why you still play the game. It all happens pretty quick when you’re actually out there playing. Sometimes you wish you had a few more seconds to just sort of soak it up and enjoy the moment a little bit more.”
If he keeps up his health, the tennis world could be in for much more. You have to hope so, anyway.