Lleyton Hewitt: The Game Changer
Former World No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt talks exclusively to ATPWorldTour.com about his career ahead of his final tournament at the Australian Open
Lleyton Hewitt, one month shy of his seventh birthday, is leaning over a fence, waiting for Pat Cash to walk by. Cash is the Australian star, a Wimbledon champion in 1987. "I'd collected autographs, but now I was trying to get one of Cash's chequered headbands," recalls Hewitt, in an exclusive interview with ATPWorldTour.com.
Other kids are getting into position, hoping they get lucky too. Cash has just finished runner-up to Mats Wilander 8-6 in the fifth set of the 1988 Australian Open final, the first time the tournament was ever played at Melbourne Park. Hewitt is used to spending all day at the tennis.
It's a massive buzz. Hewitt doesn't get Cashy's headband, but he gets to know him in years to come.
Hewitt is Aussie Rules Football mad. His Dad, Glynn, was once a part of the biggest sport in Australia.
Hewitt likes the team aspect of AFL. But ever since the age of six, he's been coached tennis every Sunday by Peter Smith. Eventually, he starts to get picked in junior Australian tennis teams and starts to travel overseas without his parents at the age of 13. He does well, especially on clay, a surface that he hasn't played on before.
On a flight home, Hewitt decides to take tennis a bit more seriously.
"I came from a sporting family and my parents were a great support," says Hewitt. "They understood the pressure and demands I was under. I gave up AFL.”
Thinking he’ll be playing junior tournaments during the Australian summer, Hewitt gets a wild card into qualifying for the 1997 Australian Open. He wins three matches to become the youngest qualifier in championship history. Some of the ball kids are older than him.
"I sort of had to pinch myself."
Hewitt is unranked and aged 15 when he plays Sergi Bruguera, a winner of two Roland Garros titles and a player he looks up to. "The amount of topspin he played with was something I had never seen before. It was an unbelievable experience and a great learning curve at such a young age."
Australians begin to get to know Hewitt, but in 12 months' time his life will completely change.
He knows every inch of Memorial Drive in Adelaide. He's played on the courts there for years and is awarded a wild card for the ATP tournament in January 1998. He’s World No. 500.
"I drew Scott Draper, defending a lot of points as a finalist the year before. Even when I served for the match, I never thought I'm actually going to win. I scraped past another South Australian Mark Woodforde, saving one match point in the second set.
"Years later, I thought back and asked myself: what would have happened if I had gone out in the second round?"
Soon the locker room is silent, the majority of the players had left for the next tour stop. "I was sitting close to Andre [Agassi], preparing to play a guy that I idolised. I loved the way he went about his tennis, his personality and how good he was for the sport. I thought I’d try to get as many games as possible."
It’s a pretty special occasion, a packed house on a really hot afternoon. Both of Agassi and Hewitt’s strengths are on return of serve. Neither of them breaks for two sets and Hewitt holds his nerve to win in two tie-breaks.
"I played Stolts [Jason Stoltenberg] in the final. I knew him through being an orange boy in Davis Cup ties a couple of times. He is such a nice, level-headed guy. I was very lucky to end up winning 7-6 in the third set. It was another nail-biting tie-break to finish the tournament. No one could believe it.
"At the end I pinched myself. Players go through so much of their career wondering if they are ever going to be able to hold up an ATP Tour title. It was amazing, especially in my back yard."
The win put Hewitt's name on the map in a big way. He’s planned to play the Australian Open junior doubles tournament with Roger Federer, but Hewitt gets wild cards into the singles and doubles’ main draws. Federer is ‘dropped’.
"I had been planning on going to school as much as possible in Year 12, the final year of high school in Australia. But I pretty much decided when I held up the trophy that I was not going back. When the opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t turn my head."
The spotlight grew. Hewitt didn't make any extravagant purchases with his Adelaide pay cheque. He put it in the bank and used it for travel. He rose more than 600 spots in a year.
"I hadn't got a full-time coach, so my Dad did a lot of travelling with me. It was good to have someone around that I trusted, week in and week out."
Throughout 2001, Hewitt didn't focus on getting to World No. 1 at all. Not even winning a Grand Slam.
"Instead, when it was announced that the Tennis Masters Cup [now named Barclays ATP Word Tour Finals] would be played in Sydney, Pat Rafter and I made a pact to be among the Top 8. Being able to play in our back yard would be a massive achievement for both of us. That was my goal.
"The US Open came along and I played fantastic, beating James Blake and Andy Roddick in five sets, then [Yevgeny] Kafelnikov and [Pete] Sampras in the final, to put myself in a good position. The euphoria of winning my first Grand Slam title was immense.”
Hewitt finished off the year really strongly. Three players were in contention for No. 1 coming into Sydney – Gustavo Kuerten, Agassi and Hewitt.
He got through the group stages, and beat Agassi. Kuerten didn't qualify for the knock outs. Already guaranteed a place in the semi-finals with a 2-0 record, Hewitt played his good mate, Rafter, on Friday night. It was a strange match. They would both play a Davis Cup final together the following week.
"I looked up to him and he was like a big brother to me I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. It became a shared experience, a former No. 1 versus me, days away from No. 1 - officially. Both from Australia.”
Hewitt carries a slight hamstring niggle so he plays the semi-finals and final with greater aggression. But the pressure was off. He'd already clinched year-end No. 1, the youngest to do so, and beat Sebastien Grosjean again to lift the title. After dropping a set to him in the first group match, he didn't lose another.
"It was a massive dream and very satisfying. I knew that all the hard work and sacrifices had paid off. Within a few years, I had played for Australia, won the Davis Cup, got to the pinnacle of the sport and held up a Grand Slam trophy… What next?"
He’s 20 years and eight months.
Hewitt always had fighting traits. "I think it's my personality and something I was born with. I think I'm a true competitor out there, no matter what I am doing I always want to get the best out of myself. I worked very hard on the practice court, prioritising that over going to the gym. I did a lot of running, some boxing and built on a really strong fitness base that I had growing up."
From the time Hewitt won Wimbledon in 2002, serve and volley was in decline. He played Argentina’s David Nalbandian in the first all-baseline final at the All England Club.
"The sport really changed after that. It was a case of 'come to the net, take me on'. That was my attitude. As good as Roger Federer is, as complete a player as he is, he still prefers to play from the back of the court - even on a grass court - and picks and chooses when he comes into the net.
"I've known Roger for years. We have had a connection dating back to the 1995 World Youth Cup in Zurich, when he beat me in a tight three-set final. Darren Cahill was the team manager. Peter Smith, my coach, helped out Peter Carter throughout his career. Carter was like a son to the Smith family in Adelaide. At the time, Carter was charged with Federer's development.”
Hewitt and Federer’s friendship dates back to when they were 13. But their rivalry came together one Sunday in September 2003.
It was the fourth rubber. Australia is 2-1 up and within sight of a home Davis Cup final. It's an important day. Federer, just two months after winning his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, is too good for the first two-and-a-half sets. Hewitt really can't do a lot.
"I was doing everything possible. I was down 3-5, 30/30 in the third set with Roger serving. I tried to hang in there. Roger got a little bit tight and I was able to make a few more balls. I turned the third set in a tie-break. The whole crowd and momentum began to turn my way. I won in five sets. For me to come back and find a way to dig deep and win marks it as one of the biggest victories of my career."
In 2005, Hewitt had a near miss. The one that got away. "I ran through the toughest Grand Slam draw I ever had - right from round one at the Australian Open. I played Rafa [Nadal] in the fourth round, winning the fourth set in a tie-break, and felt like I got on top of him physically. Not many players have done that in their careers. That set the tone and I rode a massive wave of momentum with the Australian public, the whole two weeks."
With fireworks going off in the distance at Australia Day parades, Hewitt was hurting deep in a fifth set against Nalbandian.
"I decided to draw a line in the sand. No matter how tired or sore I was, I was going to find a way to win. It wasn't about the quality of the tennis, it was about finding the extra one per cent to turn the match around. I won 10-8. My body was sore, but I had Roddick next. I survived and reach the final…
"When I started out, the bigger guys just served big, but now they were better, stronger athletes and moved around the court so well. They are also able to play offence and defence. Marat Safin, my opponent in the 2005 Australian Open final, was such a great ball striker. He could hit winners from all areas of the court."
Players from the past had used the same game style as Hewitt, but a lot of the Australian's contemporaries decided to follow in his footsteps. Hewitt took the sport to a new level through his counter punching skills, intensity, return of serve and his never-say-die attitude. The tour moved on, but Hewitt's fire was never extinguished.
"In some ways, Marat would take the sport to a new level. Just as Roger, Rafa and Novak did in future years. How could such a big guy hit the ball so hard and move so well around the court? I did my best but I come up just short. It hurt.
"I proposed to Bec the night of the final. I couldn't get down on one knee as I was so sore from a fortnight of tennis. I might have lost the Australian Open, but I won in life when she said, 'Yes'."
At 34, Hewitt is now poised to start a new chapter in his life. "Bec and the kids are looking forward to it.
"I'll still be involved in tennis as Australia's Davis Cup captain, following in the footsteps of so many greats. It's a huge honour. It'd be impossible to let go completely. But I soon won't have to think about training, travel or getting my body right to keep pace with the ever evolving tour. I can sit back, chill out and I will no longer need to set my alarm and go to the gym."
Hewitt is just about to begin his 20th straight Australian Open. His final tournament. His tennis racquets are re-gripped, his ankle braces secure, his wristbands and cap in place. He slings his bags over his shoulders, his preparation complete.
He's ready to head out onto court. He's ready to compete.