Leaving on his own terms

Tennis : Australia's two-time Grand Slam winner Lleyton Hewitt was the ultimate underdog champion
Last Updated 23 January 2016, 18:33 IST

It was finally time to go for Lleyton Hewitt, and although it might have been time to go rather sooner, who could begrudge him this? One last singles match under the spotlights at age 34 at the tournament he has played more than any other. One more chance to scrap and give it his all with his family, friends and compatriots urging him on in the stands and with Australia tuned in, from Perth to Sydney to his home city, Adelaide.

"I just felt this was the perfect place to finish," Hewitt said to the crowd in Rod Laver Arena with his three young children beside him.

Though the setting and timing were symbolic -- this was Hewitt's 20th Australian Open -- Thursday's 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 loss to David Ferrer in the second round did not quite check all the boxes.

A full-throated five-setter would surely have been a more appropriate finish considering how many Hewitt had fought through in his long career as he went from underdog to world No. 1 and then, for many years, back to underdog.

A later night would have been more fitting, too, from a battler who once won an Australian Open marathon on this court at 4:34 am. Thursday's farewell match wrapped up at 9:48 p.m., almost in time to get the Hewitt children to bed at a civilized hour.

Nor was this a passing of the torch to the new generation. Ferrer is 33, and with his No. 8 seeding, he is perhaps even more a reflection of the staying power of the modern men's tennis player than Hewitt. Ferrer is also Hewitt's stylistic cousin: an undersize hustler in a microcosm of taller rivals with bigger weapons; a man who relies on his legs, returns and counterpunches and uses "Vamos!" for punctuation in much the same way that Hewitt shouts, "C'mooooon!"

"As I was coming up the ranks, he was always a role model for me with his fighting spirit and passion for tennis," Ferrer said.

That was because Hewitt became a star so early, announcing himself at 16 by upsetting Andre Agassi in Adelaide in 1998 on his way to the title. In 2001, he won the US Open and became the youngest No. 1 in men's tennis history at 20 years 9 months. In 2002, he won Wimbledon, the tournament that has long defined true success for Australians.

But he won it in most un-Australian fashion: from the baseline instead of serving and volleying like his nation's long line of previous Wimbledon champions. It was an abrupt stylistic shift, as was Hewitt's backward ball cap and in-their-face demeanor on court.

He was frequently foul-mouthed early in his career, and he remained feisty and high strung, burning off his nervous energy between points by feverishly picking at his strings or grabbing reflexively at his shirt. The tics, though less urgent, were still there Thursday night. So was the combativeness as Ferrer pushed Hewitt into the corners and frequently into skidding partial splits.

Hewitt swatted the court at one stage with his racket, dropped it in frustration at another and even received a warning for an audible obscenity, which sparked a prickly discussion with the French chair umpire Pascal Maria.

"He's still fiery, but he's also matured, and now he's got the job of helping the next generation do the same," his longtime coach, Tony Roche, said.

There was fire after the tennis, too, as Hewitt reacted angrily to website reports that he was among those who had played in matches with unusual betting patterns. This came in a week when concerns about match fixing in tennis had been a dominant theme at the Australian Open.

"Obviously, yeah, there's no possible way," he said. "I know my name's now been thrown into it. I don't think anyone here would think that I've done anything, corruption or match fixing. It's just absurd."

Hewitt will now move into his new role as captain of Australia's Davis Cup team, mentoring great young talents with some behavioral issues of their own in Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic.

Wimbledon might be the title Hewitt values most, but the Davis Cup is the competition that has earned him the most respect from Australians and has surely helped keep him competing long after most other big stars would have been tired of the slide down the rankings.

Hewitt, who was No. 308 when he took to the court Thursday, has not been past the fourth round in a Grand Slam event since 2009. Yet he put himself through operations and strict training regimens without getting the obvious rewards in terms of results. He then put himself through a yearlong farewell tour: something else many of his peers would have done differently.

"I think Lleyton is always about doing it his way, and he's not going to be told what he should do, when he should retire, how he should play or how he should behave on the court," said Darren Cahill, the coach who guided him to No. 1.

"He's been incredibly stubborn, and it's what has made him a champion to a large degree. Ultimately you can't do what he's done unless you absolutely love the game, and you love the journey that goes with it, and in that I mean the travel and the training and the ability to get out of bed every morning and force yourself to get a little better."

Hewitt made the journey under plenty of scrutiny, and the Australian Open, where he reached one final in 2005, has gone through so much change of its own.

When Hewitt first played in the Australian Open, in 1997, the hardcourt surface was green Rebound Ace instead of blue cushioned acrylic, and the complex had one court with a retractable roof instead of three.

The smell of eucalyptus still hangs in the air at Melbourne
Park in the heat of the Australian summer, but the trees have grown along with the crowds and the tournament's ambitions.

It has been a long time since Hewitt was not a part of the scenery; a long time, too, since he was a true contender. But that mattered little on Thursday as he heard the roars and felt the goose bumps; as he looked up in defeat to a standing ovation and then a prerecorded video on the Laver Arena screens with farewell messages from Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Kyrgios.

But the strongest emotions came later in the locker room, and when he arrived at the news conference with the next generation of Hewitts in tow, his eyes were red.
Were there tears?

 "I don't know," he said smiling. "Maybe a couple."

(Published 23 January 2016, 16:53 IST)

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