By Bill Simons
Lleyton Hewitt emerged straight from central casting. Not since Jimmy Connors has tennis seen such a fierce “me against the world” force of nature. He popped “out of the womb fired up,” claimed John McEnroe.
Pat Rafter called him “a tough little bugger.” John Newcombe added, “Lleyton’s a feisty little bloke who was blooded for this situation.”
From the get-go Hewitt was special. His first great win, when he was a 16-year-old ranked No. 550, was in his hometown of Adelaide. Now, on a haunting September evening – out on the US Open’s fabled and so theatrical Grandstand Court – he was a grizzled 34-year old playing his last great American match. Lleyton’s nickname is “Rusty,” and that old Grandstand is rusty too. Like the Aussie, the small, wise and weary arena was reluctantly enduring its last hurrah.
Over the years Hewitt has changed. His long hair is long gone. His raw, feisty fire has simmered, just slightly.
Writer Simon Barnes noted that Lleyton, as a teen at Wimbledon, would adeptly play “the youth card with runaway enthusiasm. Calf-length shorts and baseball cap on back to front, so that you kept waiting for him to whiz up and down the court on a skateboard.”
Now he travels the tour with his three kids and his wife, a famous Down Under soap opera star. As a 20-year-old he was celebrated as the youngest player to ever finish the year as No. 1. But on this New York night he is No. 166. He led Australia to two Davis Cup championships. Now, he’s Australia’s Davis Cup captain. He once was a feared foe. But the former Wimbledon and the US Open champ is now beatable. Once mentored by Aussie wise men with terse nicknames – Rochey (Tony Roche) and Newk (Newcombe) – he now has morphed into a kind of father figure and knowing guide for his nation’s beleaguered bad boys, Nick Kyrgios and Bernie Tomic.
So never mind that for years, Hewitt was tennis’ most infuriating character. Early on many assumed the brash bloke was a brawl waiting to happen. One writer asked a tennis official (who had been a diplomat), “Who’s scarier: Fidel Castro or Lleyton Hewitt?” Another reporter wondered, “Is Hewitt the player most likely to get beaten up in the locker room?” Martina Navratilova thought Hewitt’s hollering and fist-pumping “were going to come to fisticuffs one day, either on court or in the locker room.”
But it never really happened.
Some embraced Hewitt’s feisty ways. Andre Agassi noted that he’s “still very rude on court, but that’s a good sign in someone his age.” And then there was the curious fact that the “snarliest” player in the men’s game was long engaged to the sweetest girl on the WTA tour – Kim Clijsters. Commentator Mark Woodforde joked that Kim suffered a wrist injury “from carrying her [huge engagement] ring around.”
But Hewitt’s talent was no joke. Along with Borg, Chang and Nadal, he had a quickness which defied the wind. Broadcaster Dick Enberg praised his “scamperability.”
For Todd Martin, Hewitt’s backhand passing shot was the toughest stroke he ever faced. In Davis Cup play he roared loud. To Roger Federer, Hewitt “really changed things and showed me how it’s done…He just couldn’t miss. [He’s the] 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.”
Mary Carillo celebrated a core truth about the man who once won an Aussie Open match at 4:34 a.m. “Until Lleyton is shaking hands with his opponent, you cannot convince him that he cannot win a match.”
He got under your skin with a maddening ease. Russian Yvgeny Kafelnikov vowed, “I’m going to teach Lleyton Hewitt a lesson, he’s going to learn the hard way.” But, in seven matches, Kafelnikov always faltered.
Hewitt thrived as Sampras and Agassi aged. But a new generation of bigger, more powerful rivals appeared on the horizon. And Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray did not falter. Hewitt, noted writer Selena Roberts, battled on “unvarnished, irascible and impolitic. In other words, he didn’t change a bit.”
But his heady dominance and 80-week reign as No. 1 vanished in 2003. There was little the fleet, defensive combatant could do. After Federer beat him eight straight times, Roger was asked whether Lleyton should shift tactics. Federer’s reply was unsparing. “Lleyton could,” said Roger. “But then again, he could run into the knife more brutally.”
These days, Hewitt rarely shouts “C’mon!” in his foes’ faces. Rarely do we see him offer his “vicht” victory hand gesture (which he actually tried to patent). Still, here at the 2015 US Open, we see signs of his once bright brilliance. There’s his celebrated backhand pass – stretch and scoop. He unleashes a gorgeous lob. We get a last glimpse of his fabled corner-to-corner movement, once so lightning fast.
But today, Lleyton is a grizzled warrior making a last valiant charge. Time, surgery and younger foes do have their impact.
The once-great whiz whiffs on a standard volley. When a simple rally forehand flies long, he tosses his Yonex racket. He curses his fate and mumbles, “Bad bounce, bad bounce.”
These days Rusty is no longer suing his agents or his own labor union, the ATP. He no longer dismisses umps as useless. A controversial racial incident is now but a memory. (After he was twice foot-faulted by an African-American linesman during his 2001 US Open match with the young African-American James Blake, Hewitt complained to the umpire, “Look at him, mate. Look at him. You tell me what the similarity is…You put him off the court.” Kim Clijsters quickly came to her boyfriend’s defense, saying, “He was the one who got blamed for being a racist, while he was sort of telling the umpire that the lineman was being racist….” While some fumed, the mellow Blake quickly let Hewitt off a very considerable hook.)
Long ago, Hewitt’s opponents stopped spitting at him, and his relationship with fans developed curious love-hate nuances. The Sydney Morning Herald tried to sort it all out. “Love or hate Lleyton Hewitt, or love to hate him,” they wrote. “Or hate to love him, or hate those who love him, or love those who love him – the public’s relationship with this guy gets more complex by the year.”
More to the point, noted Jon Wertheim, “Hewitt’s pugnacity is much more likable in his early 30s than it was in his early 20s.”
On this US Open night, Lleyton’s presence remains – hat on backwards and distinct bowlegged gait. He constantly towels off and flashes his coil-and-blast serve and “I will not flinch” intensity. His fire still simmers.
After all, when it comes to ferocity, many argue that only Connors, McEnroe, Ilie Nastase and Pancho Gonzalez were Hewitt’s equal. Now the bad boy is beloved. Fans screech, “C’mon Rusty! Right here!” But tonight there seems to be no “here” here. Hewitt drops the opening two sets to his friend and student Tomic. Never mind that Hewitt is twice two points from defeat. He wins the third and fourth sets. Then, deep into the fifth, he scores a blazing winner. Aussie Fanatics sing, “Sweet down the line. Lleyton’s never looked so good, so good.” The battler is back. An ecstatic Pittsburgh politician in a bright cap talks of how he was inspired by the Aussie when he was a kid. Lleyton’s mother tells IT that she knew her son was a fighter as a child, but now she’s most proud of him because “he’s such a sweet family man.”
And tonight’s crowd is sweet on Aussie Hewitt. Sentimental screams rock the rickety Grandstand. Rusty has two match points. But he can’t convert. Then he serves for the match, but cannot hold. The old man on the old court cannot tap into his old magic.
Still, the fanatics sing, “There’s only one Lleyton Hewitt, there’s only one Lleyton Hewitt. Walking along, singing a song, walking in a Lleyton wonderland.”
In the many seasons after Sampras and Agassi, the little Australian with the big ‘tude has provided so much wonder. After all, as the song says, “There’s only one Lleyton Hewitt.” Clearly the boy who came out of the womb fired up now is leaving the game still fired up. As Federer insisted, “Lleyton should be proud.”