Lleyton Hewitt: Street Fighter
DEUCE Australian Open 2012
by Robert Davis|
Ever since Lleyton Hewitt became the Australian Open's youngest qualifier in 1997, he has competed with burning desire. DEUCE looks back at his career highs and the fire that drives him as he closes on his 31st birthday.
Some say that he was born with a bit of the mongrel in his blood, while others will swear that pound for pound Lleyton Hewitt just might be one of the greatest competitors the sport has ever seen. Throughout his career Hewitt has carved out a reputation of consistently defying the odds. The former World No. 1 has always been special - even from a young age.
"My first impression of Lleyton was when he was 12 years old," remembers Darren Cahill. "His parents wanted a different set of eyes and rang me up. Then, one day, there was a knock on the door and there was this little kid with his hat turned around backwards, [wearing] long shorts and he had a bag with like eight racquets. I looked at him and said, 'are you ready to go hit some?' He walked straight past me through the house and out to the court in the back yard. We must have hit for about three hours and all he wanted to do was play sets."
"That first breakthrough was unexpected."
Over the next three years, Hewitt would develop a style that included a fortress like defence that delivered a constant stream of body punches with all the tenacity of some sort of ultimate cage fighter. Hewitt would then go to work on your mind, getting you to start to doubt yourself and make you run so much that pretty soon you are wrung to ribbons. Few players can take the punishment and the less prepared ones begin checking out with Hail Mary slap shots down the line - landing long. About the only difference between Hewitt and a cement backboard is that Hewitt has a heartbeat.
"I had been practising with him in the lead up to Adelaide," recalls Mark Woodforde. "But there was nothing in those hit ups that led me to believe he was ready to win a tour event. Then I played him in the second round and in the third set I injured my leg. I remember thinking after coming off the court that Lleyton Hewitt sort of created that injury by pushing me brutally all over the court and making me do all the work."
At the Hewitt home in Adelaide, a large poster of Andre Agassi hangs on the wall of young Lleyton's bedroom. One would have thought that long nights looking up at his hero would have intimidated 15-year-old Hewitt when he came face-to-face with the great Agassi in the 1998 Adelaide semi-finals. There was just one problem for Agassi, Hewitt does not worship idols. "That first breakthrough was unexpected," says Tony Roche. "To beat Agassi who was already a great player, I think everybody sort of knew he (Hewitt) was something special then."
As impressive as winning Adelaide was, what impressed Woodforde and Cahill was what followed.
"Even though he had just won a tour event he did not automatically jump up to the Top 100," recalls Woodforde. "He then spent the next six months or even a bit longer traveling around the tour. He was sort of under Tony Roche's wings and still with Darren (Cahill). He was in Europe trying to play the tournaments that Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis were playing. And he would be up first thing in the morning just to get a practice court. And there were times when he could not even get into the qualifying draw. So Roche just put him in as a hitting partner for anyone that needed a hit. He would be out there four and five hours a day hitting and warming up guys for their matches. The whole time he was working on his game, developing his base and watching the top players. He was willing to pay his dues. That is when it really hit home to me that he was going to be special."
"He is not scared of anyone."
"A few weeks before he had to defend his title at Adelaide [in 1999] he played a Challenger in his last tournament of the year in Perth," says Cahill. "The majority of his points were coming off in two weeks time from Adelaide. If he did not do well, he was going to drop to around World No. 300. He was the top seed in Perth and a big target for everyone. There was a lot of pressure, which he handled incredibly well. He won the singles [d. Mark Draper 6-4, 6-4] and the doubles titles. And he made it back to the finals at Adelaide [losing to Thomas Enqvist 6-4, 1-6, 2-6]. That is when we knew that he was a big-time player."
While Agassi may have been Hewitt's hero, it is his resemblance to another American champion, Jimmy Connors, that draws the most comparisons by tennis experts. And just like Connors, Hewitt's brash style that featured the near barbaric 'COME ON' scream, put people in the love him or hate him category. Especially back home in Australia, where he had to fill the shoes left by Rafter.
"Anytime you get put in the same category as a guy like Jimmy Connors is fantastic," Hewitt told DEUCE. "I mean obviously he's one of the greats of our game. He was able to play for so many years at such a competitive level of tennis as well against so many generations and he obviously had a stellar career."
Says Roche, "Australians sort of have that reputation that they often like to knock their people who are successful. They all have their knockers, but they have more supporters."
It was Hewitt's dedication to Davis Cup and willingness to leave blood on the court whenever he represented his country that eventually won over many of his knockers.
"When John Newcombe and myself took over the Davis Cup team," began Roche, "we started with Lleyton when he was just 15 years old in Sydney. Throughout the years he has given us so many memorable moments - the tie against the United States in Boston (Longwood Country Club, Chestnut Hill, 1999) right after the US Open springs to mind. Lleyton was not even on the team at first and had already flown home to Australia when Philippoussis hurt his knee. We got him [Hewitt] to come back and he played his first Davis Cup match against Todd Martin, who was a very good player at the time, and won.
"Then that match in Spain (Palao Sant Jordi, Barcelona 2000)," continues Roche, "where there were 20,000 screaming Spaniards, who all wanted Lleyton's blood, and he beat Albert Costa in five sets. Lleyton was sick during that tie and he won that match with just pure guts."
"He is not scared of anyone," says former coach Cahill. "You can throw him in the worst environment in the world, against the toughest opponent in the world and he is ready for the challenge. And if there is someone who is going to fight to the very end, who will scratch and claw to the death, Lleyton will be in for that."
When Hewitt defeated Pete Sampras to win the US Open in 2001, it is safe to say that there were more than a few cold cans of beer toasted in his honour Down Under. "Winning the US Open meant a great deal to Australian tennis," says Roche. "For John [Newcombe] and myself it was something special."
"The US Open win was one of, if not, the greatest moment in my tennis career," confesses Cahill. "I am thankful that I was able to be a part of Lleyton's team. We had some discussions before the US Open about his place in the game. He was about six or seven in the world and had made some runs deep in tournaments, but he had not made that breakthrough yet. And going into the US Open, the practice week at New Haven was the best practice week he had ever had. So, to me, the big change was right before the tournament. He had the tough battle with [Andy] Roddick in the quarters, beat [Yevgeny] Kafelnikov comfortably in the semis and went into the final against Pete believing in himself. For me, to watch him accomplish this as a friend, as a coach and sort of a big brother it was just a great moment."
By now the tennis world had learned a few things about Hewitt. Specifically, that he does not hit heavy, nor does he hit hard. His serve is well placed but it is not considered a weapon by any means. He has an excellent volley, but ventures to the net only after all the hard work has been done. He has a heart the size of a lion and a head as hard as a hammer. And he will voluntarily grind his legs down to the stumps if it means the difference between winning and losing. Now with his appetite whetted and victory constantly in his grasp, Hewitt went on a rampage. "Lleyton Hewitt was incredible at that particular time (2001 and 2002)," claims Rafter. "There was no one that he could not beat in a one off match. And in Davis Cup he was just awesome."
Hewitt would provide Australia with another great sporting moment by winning Wimbledon in 2002. "I had to handle some pressure being the number one seed going into the tournament," Hewitt tells DEUCE. "And the way I went about it, especially beating Henman in the semi-finals, in straight sets, in front of his home crowd, and then, obviously, cleaning up Nalbandian in pretty convincing style, I guess, in the final. It was just a dream come true and obviously to handle those nerves and expectations was something I can be proud of."
"Lleyton gave everything to every challenge in front of him."
Bernard Tomic, today's Australian No. 1, remembers, "I was watching his Wimbledon matches on television. To watch Lleyton at that stage when you are up and coming and you want to be like him playing big matches like that one day."
It has been called one of the greatest points in the history of tennis. Fitting that it would feature two great champions. It illustrated Hewitt, the warrior. Though Roger Federer was comfortably winning the match at the 2005 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells - that did not stop Hewitt from fighting till the very end. Roger Rasheed coached Hewitt then.
"Lleyton was not even going to take the court because he was in a world of hurt," says Rasheed. "He had a bad ingrown toe issue that stopped him for the next four weeks. But he did not want to let the house down as it was packed. He did not even warm up for the match it was that bad."
It would take Hewitt one first serve, 11 cross-court backhands, seven forehand drives, two drop shots, two lobs, a smash and a lunging forehand volley to win the point. Hell, Federer must have felt like he had been tossed into the Devil's Punchbowl. And when the point finally ended, both players were feted like bloodstained gladiators with a standing ovation.
"Lleyton gave everything to every challenge in front of him," says Rasheed. "The greatest quality he had is that when it was a big match or moment, they were the times he was always present and all guns blazing. Lleyton is motivated by the competition and the adrenalin it brings plus more importantly his love for the game of tennis. His mind is wired for high-end competition, which requires a huge belief in yourself and a big appetite for work. We wanted to match his talent with a ruthless work ethic, which, I believe, only a few in that time would have been able to handle."
Like all great champions, their careers are littered with painful losses. For Hewitt, losing the final of the Australian Open in 2005 to Marat Safin must have been excruciating considering how much he wanted it and how close he got. "After the final he was shattered, as were we all," claims Rasheed. "He played his heart out and carried a heavy load during the Oz summer. He put it all on the line on and off the court for three months leading in, nothing was missed except the win."
At the age of 30, ranked No. 180 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, the sun has begun its slow descent on this proud champion's career. But true to his spirit, Hewitt refuses to quit. He continues to put in the hard yards and lay it all on the line on the tennis court.
"One of the things that sort of frustrates me is when the media asks, 'why is he still playing? Should he not be retiring?'" says Rafter. "I believe that if Lleyton wants to play even if he is ranked World No. 100, then good on him. That is what he loves to do. He wants to be out there and he wants to keep going."
"Lleyton is a big-match player," says Roche. "A proven fighter that gets up off the floor and comes back stronger the next day. The last three years have been so hard for Lleyton. It is so difficult to stop and start and stop again. He still wants it, and he still believes that he can compete with the best players, but he just has to get himself healthy."
If tennis were a game of tug of war you would need to saw off Hewitt's legs to pull him over the line. With two hip surgeries in the last four years, that is pretty much what has happened. Though Hewitt's legs might have weakened from the grind, his lion heart remains as strong as ever. And with the Olympic Games just seven months away and being played at Wimbledon, where he has conquered before, one has to wonder 'what if' Hewitt's body can hold up?
"He is an unbelievable student."
"It'd be great to get a start at the Olympics," says Hewitt. "Wimbledon is such a special place for me to play anyway. It will be unique playing a different kind of event there. But anytime you play for your country is a fantastic honour, obviously."
If Lleyton Hewitt can make one more run deep into the draw at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, how great would that 'COME ON' sound Down Under then?
WHAT THEY HAVE TO SAY ABOUT HEWITT
Roger Rasheed: "I will say that as a sportsman Lleyton is gold. He has only offered the best and given his total commitment to his sport and playing for his country. He was always inspirational to watch and someone that I learnt so much from. He helped in my development as a coach in so many ways."
Darren Cahill: "He is an unbelievable student. I am not sure there is anyone better at processing information, executing it on the court and then come back to you and have a discussion with you on what is going to work and what is not going to work and how that interaction will work against different types of players. He knows that if you give him a piece of information that will work against certain players and others it might be useless. He is very good at working out where that information will bring him success against certain players."
Nathan Healey: "I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to work with Lleyton and learned plenty over the year and a half with him. This experience helped me to become a better coach. Lleyton was fantastic to work with and he never challenged any of my ideas or concepts. A couple of stories that spring to mind is a battle of pool at his home in Adelaide. He wouldn't let a game slip, complete focus the whole time. He also organised a 10-pin bowling championship with his close mates, organised a trophy, uniforms and even had special balls made! We have also played many rounds of golf together, and he would again be extremely determined and competitive in every outing."
Pat Rafter : "Determined. Tenacious. Bulldog."
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