On an emotional night, appropriately bedecked in an outfit strongly resembling an Australian flag and in front of an exuberant Australian crowd, Lleyton Hewitt played his final professional tennis match.
Melbourne, Hewitt’s home Slam tournament, was a most fitting place to end Hewitt’s career. Not only is it the Slam event in his home country, and not only is it the tournament that he has often said he wished most that he had won, but it is the tournament that he never missed.
Hewitt’s professional career spanned 20 years–two decades of competing at the highest levels of tennis. It was a career with ups and downs, riddled with injuries, but it always had one constant: Melbourne. Hewitt played this tournament a record 20 times. It was the first Grand Slam event he ever played, back in 1997; it is now the final Grand Slam event that he played, just now in 2016. And he did not miss a single one in between.
Hewitt burst onto the tennis scene in 1998, when he became the third-youngest player to win an ATP tournament when he captured the Adelaide title. That is a constant theme throughout Hewitt’s early career. He set or came close to many records for being the youngest to do something. He still remains the youngest player to ever achieve the World No. 1 ranking. Because Hewitt reached such a high peak at such a young age, including winning his first tournament at 16 and his first Slam title at 20, the tennis world got to not only watch Hewitt grow as a player; they watched him grow up.
If there is any player whose career also came with such a drastic shift in attitude, it was Hewitt. Early in his career, Hewitt was young and brash. He was winning tournaments left and right, but he also left a few controversies in his wake. Rather than rehash all the drama of his early career, it’s worth noting that he moved away from all of that as his career went on.
Hewitt won 24 tournaments in the first eight years of his career, from 1998-2005. Critics will say that Hewitt took advantage of a generational shift in tennis to move straight to the top during that time. They aren’t wrong, even if that is a little unfair. Hewitt fully utilized his talents from a very young age, and his ability to hit pinpoint passing shots gave him a real advantage over the outgoing generation of serve-and-volleyers.
The new generation of mostly baseline players, led by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (and, to a lesser extent, Andy Roddick and others) would eventually overtake Hewitt on the court. But Hewitt got to his best first and ate up titles and accolades because of it.
From 2006 onwards, though, Hewitt only claimed six titles. The lack of victories could probably be attributed to injuries as much as anything else. The constant fight with his own body, coupled with the lack of victories, left us with a Lleyton Hewitt that most tennis fans have a much easier time respecting than they did his earlier version.
Hewitt transformed himself to the consummate fighter. He battled through every point and left his heart and body on the court. The talent was always still there. In a one-match situation, if he is healthy, Hewitt can probably still beat anyone on a grass court. He beat Roger Federer in the Halle final less than two years ago. The problem was that being healthy suddenly became an impossible “if”. It became apparent, time and again, that Hewitt’s body was letting him down.
Hewitt won two tournaments as recently as 2014. He fought to the end, and he could string together victories at big tournaments during some periods of stable health. He earned the respect and admiration of fans worldwide with the fight, if not the wins. It felt like a common trope in his final years: Hewitt would fight his way back into a fifth set in a match when it felt impossible, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion. The trend was as amazing to see as it was painful. Hewitt wanted to keep going; at some point, though, his body just wouldn’t let him.
In a way, that made David Ferrer absolutely the best opponent to meet for his final match. Ferrer made his career doing the exact same thing: grinding through points, forcing extra shots, and fighting to the end–always finding an extra gear when one was necessary. Ferrer is the No. 8 player in the world; there is no shame in Hewitt losing his final match to him.
Hewitt could have retired years ago. No one would have blamed him. But he stayed on the court this long so that his kids could be old enough to remember seeing him play. Because, let’s be honest, what greater memory could a tennis player take home than this?
And finally, in one final emotional interview, Lleyton Hewitt, Australian champion and hero, gave fitting last words to a great tennis career.
After which he, in a perfect ending to his career, walked off the court with his family.