Lleyton Hewitt Exits Australian Open And Retires With Unfulfilled Potential

Lleyton Hewitt bade farewell to both the 2016 Australian Open and professional tennis this morning following a straight sets defeat at the hands of the Spanish eighth seed, David Ferrer.

The 34-year-old had announced his intention to retire at the conclusion of his twentieth Australian Open campaign last January and the warmth of the send-off that he received from the home crowd packed into the Rod Laver Arena was testament to his popularity among the Australian tennis public.

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Hewitt departs the sport having won two Grand Slams, two ATP World Tour finals and 26 regular Tour events (including two at Masters 1000 Series level) through the course of a 20-year professional career, and he spent a combined 80 weeks as world number one between November, 2001 and April, 2003.

In this context it might seem trite to suggest that Hewitt could harbour any regrets upon retirement; however, the irresistible nature of the baseball-capped, fist-pumping 20-year-old’s rise to the summit of the sport at the turn of the millennium was such that his ultimate trophy-haul cannot help but seem a little underwhelming.

After all, Hewitt’s emphatic 7-6, 6-1, 6-1 defeat of the 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras in the 2001 US Open final stands as a seminal moment in the history of the modern sport. That triumph not only sent Hewitt on his way to becoming the youngest ever world number one before the year was out, it also heralded the dawning of a new era at the elite level of the men’s game.

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Coming just 12 months after the then 20-year-old Marat Safin had defeated Sampras in the same fixture, Hewitt’s Flushing Meadows triumph brought the Grand Slam domination of Sampras and Andre Agassi to a decisive end and further signalled a significant stylistic transformation.

For where Sampras had won the majority of his majors by employing a serve-volley game evocative of the John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg-Jimmy Connors era, Hewitt could be accurately seen as his stylistic antithesis. The ultra-fit, ultra-athletic young Aussie seldom ventured more than metre inside of the baseline and relied on his exceptional positional intelligence and footwork to ensure that every ball that was in anyway “gettable” was returned.

Hewitt, a modern athlete par excellence, used the physical edge that he possessed on an aging Tour elite to play the percentages. He seldom risked hitting a winner from the back of the court and instead placed the onus on his opponent to try to end points early. This strategy was effective owing to the fact that Hewitt’s opposition knew that he was the fittest player on Tour and could maintain a high level of performance for longer in the event of a three- or five-set match.

Furthermore, Hewitt’s remarkable ability to anticipate shots and cover ground quickly meant that his opposition needed to aim close to the chalk if they were to hit past him. Inevitably such a strategy resulted in a high percentage of unforced errors and it is revealing that Sampras made 38 unforced errors and only hit five groundstroke winners in his US Open final defeat against the Aussie.

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The manner in which Hewitt had backed up his maiden Grand Slam triumph by winning the Tennis Masters Cup (now called the ATP World Tour Finals) to finish ’01 at the top of the world rankings meant that many commentators were already discussing Hewitt as the heir to Sampras’ throne by the start of the 2002 season. While Hewitt’s round-one exit at the Australian Open that year initially made such speculation appear hasty, the fact that he went on to win his second major in eight months at Wimbledon persuaded many doubters that they were witnessing the rise of a potentially historic great.

Hewitt won six of his seven matches at the 2002 Wimbledon Championships in straight sets and the BBC described his 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 defeat of David Nalbandian in the final as “one of the most one-sided finals” in the competition’s history, one which served to “emphatically underscore his status as the new dominant force in men’s tennis.”

Such rhetoric did not seem over-the-top when one accounts for the fact that it took Agassi and Sampras two and three years respectively to claim their second Grand Slam titles and the manner in which Hewitt rounded-off ’02 by winning his second consecutive Masters Cup seemed only to confirm the fact that he had succeeded Sampras as the game’s foremost player for a decade to come.

But Hewitt was never the heir to Sampras, nor was his innately conservative baseline-style the future of men’s tennis.

For no sooner had Hewitt established himself as world number one than a young Swiss named Roger, exhibiting an aggressive all-court game of unprecedented refinement, came to fruition at Wimbledon in 2003 and went on to win 14 of the next 25 Grand Slams, beating Hewitt in the final of the 2004 US Open.

Rafael Nadal rose quickly in Federer’s wake and Hewitt was soon surpassed by Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, too. All these players – the quartet who have won 39 of the last 43 men’s major singles titles – matched Hewitt’s athleticism and further possessed a level of technical quality, shot variety and power which enabled them to hit-past his baseline defence and expose his weakness in attack and on service.

Hewitt ultimately reigned during a brief interregnum which separated the Sampras era from that of Federer, and while the Aussie could not be accused of failing to make the most of his talents, he was never the player we all thought had emerged at the US Open in 2001.

[Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images]