I first heard of Lleyton Hewitt when reading sports capsules about Australian Open tune-up events in 1998. A hometown kid named Lleyton Hewitt upset Andre Agassi who was launching his comeback from a poor 1997 campaign. I thought either this kid is really good or Agassi has a lot of work in front of him in 1998. Hewitt went on to win his first ATP title so I figured the kid was pretty good.
A lot of people tabbed this as the successor rivalry to Sampras-Agassi. It was a fun rivalry with lots of tension, but tennis produced a few more notable rivalries in the 2000s
Hewitt started reaching deep rounds and even winning some smaller events as 1999 and 2000 progressed. Hewitt lost to Boris Becker in Becker’s surprise 1999 Wimbledon appearance. Questions emerged regarding Hewitt’s slight stature and the 3 of 5 set nature of major events. Hewitt pushed back against those concerns with a 2000 run to the US Open semifinal. Pete Sampras beat Hewitt in three tight sets prior to being blitzed by Marat Safin in the championship match. Lleyton Hewitt made an ugly accusation directed at James Blake during the 2001 US Open. Hewitt also won a tight match over Andy Roddick in the quarterfinal round. Still, Hewitt had enough gas left in the tank emotionally and physically to beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Pete Sampras in straight sets to win the US Open semifinal and championship matches. Hewitt would go on to win the Masters Cup in 2001 and finish the year ranked #1.
Wimbledon and Cincinnati 2002
Lleyton Hewitt won Wimbledon 2002 and had a strong hold on the world of tennis. Hewitt entered Cincinnati looking like he would dominate tennis for the next 18 months as Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Roger Federer had not yet become champions, Marat Safin was too inconsistent, and Andre Agassi and particularly Pete Sampras were aging. I attended this event. I remember watching Hewitt practice and being impressed with his intensity. He was especially businesslike on the practice court as compared to Federer and Ferrero who were hitting together and basically laughing a lot. Safin and Kafelnikov were also in a humorous mood on the practice courts. Hewitt was focused, hit a ton of balls, worked up a huge sweat, and headed off the court to cool down. He walked past me. I am 5’11” and remember thinking Hewitt looked tiny yet incredibly intense as he passed by me by 2 feet.
Hewitt got into a dispute with the ATP about his press appearances in Cincinnati. This drama was a distraction Hewitt did not need. He went on to lose to Carlos Moya in the Cincinnati final. At the US Open, Andre Agassi knocked Lleyton out in 4 sets preventing a favorable rematch with Pete Sampras in the final. Hewitt did go on to win the ATP World Championship and finished 2002 at #1, but a player of his slight build needed every bit of himself focused on tennis to be number one and his fight with the ATP did not help his cause. Hewitt would never again win a Grand Slam title despite multiple quarterfinal, semifinal, and championship round appearances.
Hewitt Grows Up? – In my View, Yes
First, Jon Wertheim who has far more access to professional tennis than I do began praising Hewitt’s gritty fire years ago. Hewitt’s peers Marat Safin and Roger Federer have also had good things to say about him. Andy Roddick tweeted something positive out about Hewitt last year. Younger players ranging from established stars like Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic to upstarts such as Nick Kyrgios have positive things to say about Hewitt as well. I figure if his peers and journalists who seem him frequently have good things to say about Rusty that any ugliness of his 2000 comments about James Blake, his 2002 fight with the ATP, offering $10 for the “tennis lesson” Kafelnikov promised him*, or dust ups with Argentina’s Davis Cup Team are part of his legacy, but they are also deep in the rearview mirror.
Hewitt will be missed as an active player, but my guess is he will be involved with Tennis Australia and perhaps being a supercoach down the road. Hewitt won at least one title every year between 1998-2007 and added titles in 2009, 2010, and 2014. Hewitt’s final career title came at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. It is safe to say Hewitt will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame in the near future.
Some Big Moments of His Later Career
Wimbledon 2009: Andy Roddick d. Hewitt 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4
This was his last big tilt with Andy Roddick. Hewitt’s post-match words about Roddick having no chance versus Andy Murray may have propelled Andy to an near Wimbledon victory.
Cincinnati 2009: Lleyton Hewitt d. Robin Soderling 3-6, 7-6, 6-4
Hewitt got pushed off the court in the first set, but kept holding serve & saved a match point to win the second set 7-6. Hewitt took an early break in the 3rd to the house to spring the upset.
Wimbledon 2013: Lleyton Hewitt d. Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 7-5, 6-3
Hewitt jumped to an early lead, but Stan took control of the 2nd set. He let Hewitt back into the 2nd set and the match was more or less over.
US Open 2013: Lleyton Hewitt d. Juan Martin del Potro 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6, 6-1
Hewitt again proved to be a tough out, and sadly Delpo was physically ailing by the end of the match.
Brisbane 2014: LLeyton Hewitt d. Roger Federer 6-1, 4-6, 6-3
Hewitt claimed a title by beating a player who pushed him backwards in the rankings in the early 2000s
2014 Newport: Lleyton Hewitt d. Ivo Karlovic 6-3, 6-7, 7-6
Hewitt’s best surface turned out to be grass. It helped him hold while his return game and passing shots gave him chances to break. Hewitt won plenty 7 titles on grass. Hewitt will join other former #1 players and major title holders by entering the Hall of Fame after enough time passes.
* The “tennis lesson” feud between Hewitt and Kafelnikov is my favorite Hewitt story.