By Bill Simons
Lleyton Hewitt‘s first great win was in his native Australia. His last great American loss was on the US Open’s fabled Grandstand Court. Lleyton’s nickname is “Rusty,” and yes, the Grandstand is rusty, too. Like the Aussie, the arena is relatively small, and this will be its last year.
Today Lleyton very much looked the part of a grizzled warrior fighting one of his last battles. Over the years, how he’s changed. His long hair is long gone. His raw, feisty fire has simmered, just slightly. Hewitt once was No. 1 – he’s now No. 166. He once was a feared foe. He won the US Open and Wimbledon. At one time he was mentored by Aussie wise men with terse nicknames – Rochey (Tony Roche) and Newk (John Newcombe). Now he’s an Aussie sage who counsels his nation’s bad boys. Nick Kyrgios and Bernie Tomic look to him as a knowing father figure. Go figure.
These days, Hewitt rarely shouts “C’mon!” in his foes’ faces, and rarely do we see him offer his Vicht victory sign.
Tonight Roger Federer is packing them in at Ashe Stadium, 23,770 strong, while the Grandstand is just half full. Here we see signs of Lleyton’s once-celebrated two-handed backhand pass – stretch and scoop. He unleashes a gorgeous lob, and we get just a glimpse of his fabled corner-to-corner movement, once so explosive, and lightning fast.
But now the elder winces after making a mess of a standard volley, and tosses his Yonex in frustration when his rally forehand flies long. He taunts the hard court, saying “Bad bounce, bad bounce.” These days Rusty is no longer suing his own labor union, the ATP. A racial incident during a James Blake US Open match is but a memory. Long ago, opponents stopped spitting at him.
Now a red-hot New York day has given way to a cool US Open night, and Hewitt’s presence remains: hat on backwards and distinct bowlegged gait – he’s constantly toweling off, flashing his coil-and-blast service motion and his “I will not flinch” intensity.
No wonder fans screech, “C’mon Rusty! Right here!” But tonight there may not be any “here” here. Hewitt promptly drops the first two sets to his friend, his practice partner, his student and fellow Davis Cup warrior, Bernard Tomic. But Hewitt is nothing if not a battler. He wins the third set. In the fourth Tomic is twice two points from the match. Then Hewitt, the crowd at his back, fights to gain four straight games, coming back from 3-5 to collect the set 7-5.
Deep into the fifth, after Hewitt scores a forehand winner, the Aussie Fanatics sing, “Sweet down the line. Lleyton’s never looked so good, so good.” One of the greatest fighters in the history of the game is fighting back. A Chilean woman in red silk yells encouragement. A Pittsburgh politician in a Nike cap talks of how he was inspired as a six-year-old by the great Lleyton Hewitt. And Lleyton’s mother tells IT that she knew her soon was a fighter as a child, but now she’s most proud of him because “he’s such a sweet family man.”
Even Federer gets into the love-fest, noting that Hewitt “really changed things around and showed me how it’s done…He was the player [who] just couldn’t miss, best counter-puncher we’ve ever seen…He would just grind you down. You would attack him and he would pass you…He did things that no other player’s ever achieved. He should be very proud.”
Not surprisingly, raucous Rusty scored a break in the fifth set to remain in the battle. Up 5-3, he had two match points, but could not convert. Then he served for the match but could not hold. Tomic’s youth, his penetrating ground shots, and his ability to deliver a variety of shots eventually prevailed 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5.
The old man on the old court just couldn’t tap into enough of the old magic. Even let cords went Tomic’s way.
Still, the Aussie fanatics sang loud, “There’s only one Lleyton Hewitt, there’s only one Lleyton Hewitt. Walking along, singing a song, walking in a Lleyton wonderland.”
Hewitt’s gnarled toes may now be surgically fused, but there’s no confusion – in the long era after Becker and Edberg and then Pete and Andre, few have given us more wonder. After all, as the song tells us, “There’s only one Lleyton Hewitt.”