Little Aussie battler
January 29th 2012 14:41
Hail Novak Djokovic, by all means. But hail Lleyton Hewitt while you’re at it.
One of the things that made the 2012 Australian Open fascinating was how thoroughly it exposed Hewitt. All aspects of his personality and ability were on full display.
No longer did anyone have to play the detective to work this complex character out – searching for clues from one tournament and combining it with evidence from another to piece together the Hewitt puzzle.
Different Hewitts had been revealed over the years – Hewitt the winner, Hewitt the loser, Hewitt the strong, Hewitt the weak, Hewitt the hero, Hewitt the villain.
This time, with everything exposed, a full and accurate assessment of Hewitt could be made.
What it showed was that the positives far outweighed the negatives.
First, to his personality. Hewitt haters would recoil at the thought, but the man is no monster. Accusations of racism in that famous US Open match against James Blake were always fanciful. Still, there have been many times in his career in which he has crossed the line from fierce competitor to bad sport. Such ugly incidents, while not excusable, were easily explained as the actions of someone desperate to win.
That is a part of Hewitt, but only a small part. Those who know him have often remarked on how calm and contemplative he becomes when off the court. He showed that once his Australian Open ended with a fourth-round loss to Djokovic. Immediately after, he praised his conqueror – something Hewitt haters might be surprised to learn he has made a habit of throughout his career. In the days following, he leant a friendly and astute presence to the Channel Seven commentary box, again praising Djokovic, while also lauding other stars, like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who had gotten the better of him over the years.
The real way to judge a tennis player, though, is by his tennis. What Hewitt has been striving all these years to win are tournaments, not sainthood. How convenient, then, that this year’s Australian Open should have been a microcosm of his career. He played good tennis, he played bad tennis, he overcame injury, he launched fightbacks, he had stirring wins and, ultimately, he lost.
What all the ups and downs confirmed is that Hewitt has only ever been a player of middling talent. That might sound like an insult, but it is actually the greatest compliment he could be paid. Middling talents don’t win grand slams. But he has somehow won two.
Hewitt’s golden run at the turn of the century owed much to good timing – Sampras and Agassi were on the way out and Federer and Nadal had yet to emerge. He was also blessed with the robustness of youth; the continuous injuries that have devastated the second half of his career only arrived after his last grand slam final, the 2005 Australian Open loss to Marat Safin.
Another reason for Hewitt’s success was his skill at working the percentages. He didn’t so much outplay his opponents as outlast them. Keep getting the ball back and eventually the other bloke will make a mistake.
But that approach no longer works. Back then, he was fast enough and determined enough to seemingly chase down every ball, which helped conceal the fact he had a weak serve, a non-existent net game and only above average ground strokes. These days, the mind is willing but the flesh is weak. He can no longer chase all those balls down and his shots seem to be landing further and further inside the service line with every passing year.
The other problem is that his rivals worked him out long ago. They now understand he was the ultimate poker player – all bluff and no cards. Fearful of getting into long rallies with him – because he always seemed to have the skill to win them – they would force shots and lose the point. Eventually, though, it dawned on the rest of the tour that he was winning those rallies through tenacity, not skill. Why fear a player with a non-existent net game and only above average ground strokes? With that realisation, the other players called his bluff. They started bludgeoning shot after shot at him and Hewitt, his fitness and reflexes fading, found it increasingly difficult to get them back.
And so to this year’s Australian Open. Anyone else with Hewitt’s characteristics would have lost in the first round. His ranking was 181. His body was fragile. He had only played four lead-in matches for three losses and a win over China’s Wu Di.
He started with a creditable four-set win over Cedrik-Marcel Stebe. In the second round, he had come from behind to lead Andy Roddick two sets to one when the world number 16 retired. Then came a tough four-set win over rising star Milos Raonic.
That set up his showdown with Djokovic. The Serb blitzed the first two sets and strolled to a 3-0 lead in the first – just what one would expect from a match between someone filled with talent and another person only sprinkled with it.
The stage had been set for one hour of quintessential Hewitt.
He held serve to make it 1-3. A hard-earned break made it 2-3. At 4-4, he summoned all his willpower to overpower Djokovic – not with brilliance, but determination – and somehow break for a 5-4 lead. Serving for the set, he was placed under almighty pressure, before he struggled over the line. Nobody could explain it, but the set was his.
By the time it became 1-1 in the fourth, Hewitt was playing his best tennis in years. He was hitting the ball hard and deep and pushing Djokovic around the court. He had willed himself to this position. A break point arrived. For a fleeting moment, a win over the brilliant Serb seemed possible. Viewers all across Australia would have thought another improbable Hewitt fightback had begun.
But reality hit. Djokovic held serve. He then broke Hewitt. The Australian fought desperately to get back into the match – of course he did – but he couldn’t. He didn’t lack heart; he just lacked talent.
Hewitt had had no right to progress to the fourth round or steal a set off Djokovic – just as he had had no right to win the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002, or fight his way to that Australian Open final in 2005.
If the 2012 Australian Open turns out to be the last time we see Hewitt play on local soil, we can say he has left us with fond memories. This was a player who was as inspirational in victory as he was in defeat. He never had the talent of a champion – but for a few glorious years, through sheer self-belief, he conned the tennis world into thinking he was one.
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