Lleyton Hewitt has just arrived for a press conference after his semifinal win against American Rajeev Ram in the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championship. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Newport, Rhode Island. An adorable-looking girl grabs the chair next to me: six-year-old Mia Hewitt, Lleyton’s first child and a blond princess. She stares at me with a quizzical look, having noticed my yellow t-shirt with her daddy’s logo on it. She can probably guess the extent of my admiration for him.
Hewitt’s fans are easy to spot. We are a passionate and loyal bunch — and quite loud sometimes. In that, we resemble Hewitt somewhat, who has always worn his heart on his sleeve.
We are also numerous, coming from everywhere, not just Australia. I became a tennis fan while growing up in Brazil and started paying attention to Hewitt more than a decade ago, when I noticed how he would always beat Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten (Hall of Fame, class of 2012), then at the top of his game. As one reporter from Italy noted, sometimes it was hard to believe that Hewitt wasn’t playing in his native Australia, given how much support he was being showered with.
Yes, this Aussie fighter has his share of American fans as well. It wasn’t always so. Even in his home country, opinion about Hewitt has always been divided, and there was a time in America when his detractors predominated. In 2006, GQ magazine ranked Hewitt among the 10 most hated athletes. Many perceive him to be an ill-mannered brat, prone to rants and gloating.
Much of the ill feeling that Americans harbor for him can be traced back to the 2001 U.S. Open, the first of Hewitt’s two Grand Slam trophies. Hewitt, on his way to beating Pete Sampras in straight sets in the final (two days before 9-11), met James Blake in his second-round match, where he complained loudly against two foot-fault calls by a linesman. Worse, he insinuated, at least in the view of many observers, that the linesman was motivated by racial bias to help Blake, Blake and the linesman both being black.
Hewitt went on to win the title to a chorus of loud boos, demonstrating the fearlessness and tenacity he was already famous for. He finished the year as world No. 1 — the youngest ever to achieve that distinction, holding the position for 75 consecutive weeks, 80 in total.
#more#Those days are gone. After five spectacular years at the top of the game, Hewitt left the top five early in 2006, never to return again. His battles with injuries have been frequent. He’s undergone fiver surgeries in the last four years. His ranking, so lofty a decade ago, has plummeted. At the start of the week in Newport, it was 233rd.
In the end, though, Hewitt’s failures serve to underscore his main virtue: his legendary never-say-die attitude. He’s had a few successes in recent years, reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2009, where he lost a five-set epic battle to Andy Roddick. And he beat Roger Federer in the 2010 Halle final to win his 28th ATP World Tour singles title and end a 15-game losing streak against his Swiss rival.
The start to his 2012 season looked unpromising. The nagging toe injury that had sidelined him since mid-September caused so much pain that he needed cortisone shots just to be able to play. A first-round loss to Victor Troicki in Sidney a week before the Australian Open fueled the speculation that this might be Hewitt’s last year on the professional circuit.
He paid no attention to all that. What came next surprised even his fans. In a stunning performance at the Australian Open, he beat Roddick and Canadian sensation Milos Raonic (2010 ATP Newcomer of the Year) to reach the fourth round and then pushed the seemingly invincible Novak Djokovic to a thrilling fourth set in a match that looked like a Grand Slam final.
It could have been a fitting swan song, the lion’s last roar, but Hewitt is still hungry. After the tournament, Hewitt opted for a surgery on his left toe, having it fused with two screws and a metal plate, in a desperate bid to prolong his career. He was sidelined for four months and then lost his next three matches before finally winning in Newport. This refusal to give up, especially at this point in his career, has earned him respect among fans who might have been put off by him earlier.
The family-man image helps a great deal. From where I was standing in Saturday’s press conference, I could also spot Mia’s younger brother Cruz while he played tennis with retired Australian player Peter Luczak in a nearby court. Will the young man follow in his daddy’s footsteps and become a tennis pro himself? He may have been fearful of the crowd back in the 2011 Australian Open, when he started crying and had to be carried away from court by Caroline Wozniacki during an all-star exhibition match, but now he is pretty comfortable inside a stadium. After Hewitt’s semifinal triumph, Cruz followed his two sisters into the court (twenty-month-old Ava Sidney in Mia’s arms) to greet their daddy, winning the whole crowd in the process.
The spectacle of Hewitt being treated by everyone as a distinguished veteran felt particularly appropriate on a weekend that saw the likes of Guga, Jennifer Capriati, and Manuel Orantes being inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. Many think that Hewitt will find himself in that company in due time.
Previously undefeated in grass-court finals (seven titles), Hewitt lost the deciding match to defending champion John Isner. And yet he has plenty of positives to take from Newport as he gets ready for his final shot at winning an Olympic medal in what is shaping up to be the Indian summer of his career.
Much has changed for Hewitt over the years, including how tennis fans perceive him. After so many years and all the scars, he is still the same kid with a baseball cap turned backwards, hungry as ever to win.