Between the roars was dead silence. Respect for Rusty apparent. Yet the tennis legend known for his spirit, his fight, his grueling and grinding style of baseline play could not muster enough to extend the inevitable. So, in his 20th consecutive appearance at the Australian Open, the curtain came down on Lleyton Hewitt’s remarkable career.
As a result, number-eight seed David Ferrer has now become the Bejanmin Becker to Andre Agassi … the last man to play Hewitt at a major before retirement.
For 34-year-old Hewitt (will be 35 next month), the moment was clearly stamped with future hall-of-famer as it simultaneously pointed to his second career as captain of his country’s Davis Cup team.
His concluding resume is robust: 30 career titles, three Grand Slam titles, and back-to-back Tennis Masters Cups in 2001 and 2002: the event which is now named the ATP World Tour Finals.
Surprisingly, Hewitt’s first major title was in men’s doubles alongside Max Mirnyi. It was Hewitt’s first U. S. Open in 2000. He went on to win the 2001 U. S. Open and Wimbledon in 2002 in singles. He also was the youngest world number one at 18 and the youngest to ever qualify for the main draw at the Australian Open in 1997.
“I’m fortunate to have this opportunity 20 years in a row,” Hewitt told a packed Rod Laver Arena. “I’ve had a fantastic last month. Have played in almost every major city across this country. Playing for Australia has always been my biggest honor.”
Sitting in his player’s box were his mother and father, Cherilyn and Glynn, who have become as familiar to fans as Hewitt himself. Their eyes filled with tears as tributes from Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and the next fiery Aussie, Nick Kyrgios, aired on screens throughout the stadium.
“Thank you for the great rivalry. I wish you only the best with your family, which is the best and ahead of you,” Federer remarked. The two turned pro in 1998, as Hewitt ushered in the baseline bashing game that changed it from one more comfortable to Federer and many pros at the time: serve and volley. The Suisse maestro acknowledged Hewitt’s impact on himself as he represented the thoughts of thousands of other pros, “You made me a better player.”
Nadal’s passion mimicked Rusty’s. The stabbing fist pumps. The down-on-one-knee with multiple fist-pumps were Hewittly inspired. “You are a big inspiration for me. Thank you for your passion on court,” Nadal said appropriately.
“You’ve been nice to me and helpful to me; I’ve always appreciated that,” Murray said.
“You’ve taught all of us kids a lot,” Kyrgios added.
Tony Roche, Hewitt’s coach from 2007-2009, was moved as Hewitt paid his respect to the Aussie legend on hand for the second-round match. “Rochie … thank you so much mate. I love you mate.” Hewitt called his wife Bec Cartwright, “His rock,” as a former coach (2001-2003) Jason Soltenberg stood alongside Thanasi Kokkinakis, another teen talent rising from this tennis-crazed country.
Lleyton’s and Bec’s three children — Mia, Cruz, and Ava — paraded on court to top off the retirement celebration. During the match, Cruz held up a sign, “Go Dad,” as he kept pace with Dad’s fist-pumps on court.
Hewitt’s intensity played a key roll in his career successes and failures. His backward-facing cap, accusatory glare set off by piercing blue eyes, and a constant furrowed brow rendered a complete picture of his insides, some of which turned ugly.
Tonight was no exception. After being called twice for foot faults by the same linesman in the final set, Hewitt turned to Chairperson Pascal Maria and yelled, “He’s the only moron doing it.” When Maria did not acquiesce Hewitt came at him again, “You’re a freaking idiot. That’s why everyone in the locker room thinks your full of yourself.”
The confrontation evoked memories of Hewitt’s racist claims made to then Chairperson Andrea Egli at his 2001 U. S. Open match against James Blake. Again, Hewitt had been called twice for foot-faulting. He asked to have the linesman removed, saying, “Look at him. Look at him and you tell me what the similarity is. Just get him off the court.” The similarity was skin color: the linesman and Blake were African American. Hewitt was not fined for the incident because Tournament Director Brian Earley ruled that Hewitt had not made the claims directly toward his opponent Blake.
The incident lingered for months, Hewitt reluctant to apologize and gutsy enough to threaten charges against the ATP as it urged him to clear up the controversy.
Yet, over the years, Hewitt has matured and learned from his errors. Last year after Kyrgios let loose his accusations about his buddy Kokkinakis “banging” Stan Wawrinka’s girlfriend, Hewitt stepped up and became a visible mentor to the crazed and reactionary Kyrgios. Given that he, Kokkinakis, Sam Groth and Bernard Tomic will make up Australia’s Davis Cup team, Hewitt’s experienced tempered with some wisdom and age could definitely rein in loose lips and the consequences they can bring to the image of tennis for Australia and worldwide.
David Ferrer was the perfect opponent today for Hewitt’s last stand. They are baseline huggers, a la Lleyton. They never give up. Yet, sadly, anyone watching could detect Rusty’s lack of speed and point recovery, although mixed with sparks of mastery. In the last set, after Hewitt had broken back to even the score 3-3, Ferrer dropped a shot right at the net. Crowds held their breath as Hewitt scrambled, reached the ball, and angled it off for a winner. Hewitt was exhausted, having only enough energy for a single fist-pump.
“It’s a sad thing,” Ferrer told the crowd, following his 6-2 6-4 6-4 win. “He’s an idol. An amazing player. My career will be special to [have played] Lleyton today. He fight to the last point. He deserve everything.”
“You had some amazing shots,” the Australian commentator then pointed out to Hewitt. “One between the legs.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t make the point.”
In a fitting and final tribute to Hewitt, two Aussie men won their second-round matches: Bernard Tomic (No. 16) defeated Simone Bolelli, 6-4 6-2 6-7(5) 7-5. And John Millman scored an upset win over towering Gilles Muller, 4-6 6-4 6-2 4-6 7-5, in a Hewitt-like five-set thriller. Ironically, Tomic and Millman meet in the next round.