As a child growing up in Melbourne, I had two loves, the Richmond Football Club and tennis, and every year when the Australian summer of tennis commenced my eyes were transfixed to either the ABC’s coverage of the Hopman Cup or Channel 7’s telecast of Adelaide, later becoming Brisbane.
From the first ball in Perth to the final ball in Melbourne, and abroad for the rest of the year, the hopes for a men’s champion would always fall on Lleyton Hewitt.
I used to adore his game, fighting spirit and passion for the sport, and stayed up until all hours of the night watching his Wimbledon endeavours on my school holiday, it was one of my favourite times of the year.
My earliest memory watching Hewitt was at the 2004 US Open where he would overcome Tommy Haas in the quarterfinal.
I was still a bit young and thought that Haas was Federer, a player who I have idolised just as much, for some reason. I think it might’ve been the similar hair colour, I’m not quite sure still to this day.
I soon realised that it wasn’t Roger, who dispatched Hewitt 6-0 7-6 6-0 in the final to claim what was just his fourth major title.
Months passed and January arrived, a time of anticipation and excitement as Hewitt claimed his fourth Sydney International title over Ivo Minar in the decider.
Things were poised spectacularly for an Australian Open tilt, drawn on the opposite side to Federer who conquered him in three of the four majors in 2004.
It started with a routine win against 2001 finalist Arnaud Clement, before a spiteful four-set win over American James Blake and finally a win over Juan Ignacio Chela in the third round, an encounter where the Argentine seemingly spat in Hewitt’s direction for his boisterous on court antics.
Then came round four, his opponent was Rafael Nadal.
The future World No.1 would take two of the opening three sets before Hewitt dug deep to clinch a five-set epic on a sweltering Melbourne afternoon, I remember exactly where I was when I watched it.
His quarterfinal adversary, David Nalbandian, had already fallen to Hewitt in the 2002 Wimbledon final, and was not a fan of the Adelaide native’s ‘COME ON’ catch cry, elaborating that the Australian should refrain from screaming when an opposition player made a mistake.
Hewitt would storm to a two-set advantage before Nalbandian’s grit forced a deciding set, with the Australian clinching an epic stanza 10-8 and sending the Rod Laver Arena night session crowd into frenzy.
In the semis he would defuse Andy Roddick’s nuclear serve and hand the American the second of his four Australian Open semifinal defeats before the miracle.
Marat Safin had taken out Federer in five, saving match points en route.
The final still remains to be one of the highest rating tennis matches in Australian television history and it started to perfection, with Hewitt winning the opener 6-1.
It was at that moment I was sent to bed as school started for the year the next day, I still can’t believe schools do that the day after an Australian Open final but oh well.
Safin would prevail for the second major of his career, and Hewitt would unfortunately never reach another major final, stopped by Federer in the 2005 Wimbledon and US Open semis, only reaching three more major quarterfinals after that.
The last of which, at Wimbledon in 2009, was truly phenomenal.
Outside of the top 100 after the 2009 AO, he clawed his way back by winning the Houston title, his first clay court title in a decade, before putting in decent showings at Roland Garros and Queen’s.
The Australian would take down World No.5 Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets in the second round, with the Argentine set to become a major champion at his next outing at the US Open.
He would record a straight sets win over Philipp Petzchner in the third before a clash with the tricky Radek Stepanek.
Things didn’t look good at all for Hewitt, down by two sets in quick time, but not before he would roar back to claim an emphatic five-set win and set up a showdown with Roddick.
I remember this night like it was yesterday, hopped up on lollies to keep me awake at my grandparents’ place on a cold wintery night in Melbourne, watching as Hewitt and Roddick went toe-to-toe for hours, but unfortunately it was not to be.
The American prevailed 6-4 in the decider before going on to lose an epic final to, you guessed it, Federer.
Speaking of, the Hewitt and Federer rivalry was one of joy to watch, not just because they were my two favourite players, but because of how dramatic some of the matches could be.
Hewitt lead the head-to-head 7-2 before Federer went on a staggering run of 15 straight matches against the Australian, who like many had no answer for the Swiss Maestro at his peak.
There are clashes like the 2003 Davis Cup that are etched into memory, but I was a little too young.
The two that stand out for me are the 2010 Halle Final and 2014 Brisbane decider.
In 2010 Federer had just been dethroned by Nadal as No.1 again, and was out to win at an event he has owned throughout his career.
The Australian saw it differently and emerged victorious from a set down to end an almost seven-year drought against his rival
Fast forward to the Queensland capital in 2014, the Australian enjoyed a sensational run to the final, defeating Thanasi Kokkinakis, Feliciano Lopez, Marius Copil and Kei Nishikori to set up his final Federer showdown.
This time it would be different, with the then 32-year-old dominating the top seed to take the opener 6-1 before Pat Rafter Arena experienced the most seesawing affair.
Federer would take the second before the Australian rallied to take the decider and the 29th of his 30 career titles.
It was another one of those unique moments where I remember exactly what I did that entire day, it was my great grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration, Australia completed the 5-0 2013/14 Ashes whitewash of England and Lleyton defeated Roger.
2014 would see Hewitt claim two championships, with his final career trophy coming on grass at the venue where just last week he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
It was a fairly lean run that year with some tough draws, but Hewitt was out to rectify his previous two showings in Newport where he fell in the final.
He defeated some players of high calibre, including Ryan Harrison, Jack Sock and Steve Johnson before coming up against the one player who’s serve had gotten the better of his elite returning skills more often than not, Ivo Karlovic.
Karlovic famously defeated Hewitt in the first round of Wimbledon 2003, with the Australian opening the tournament as the defending men’s champion.
At that stage, the Croatian led the Australian 4-1 in their head-to-head, but not to be deterred Hewitt took the opener quickly before the Karlovic continued to serve bombs and enforce a decider.
However, not to let his losses in 2012 and 2013 get in his head the Australian was back in title town for the final time in his career, just over 6,000 days since his first in Adelaide in 1998.
Sure, there are many other things people will remember Hewitt for, but everyone has their own perceptions of a player’s career and that is what makes sport wonderful.
Hewitt’s induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame is most certainly warranted, because he has achieved things and set records that still stand to this day.
The Australian is still the youngest ever World No.1, youngest player to finish the year in top spot, youngest player to qualify for the Australian Open and boasts the title of lowest ranked player to win an ATP Title.
He won two majors, reached four Grand Slam finals, won a doubles Grand Slam, spent a total of 80 weeks at number one, won the ATP Finals twice and defeated each member of the Big Three in Federer, Nadal and Djokovic on the first time of asking.
Yes the final stat above is misleading as all three were young when Hewitt played them, but here’s another couple for you, since the Australian won Wimbledon 20 years ago, only four men have won the title since.
From 2005 to 2021, only Federer, Nadal, Andy Murray and Djokovic had entered the top two in the ATP Rankings, Hewitt was the most recent until Daniil Medvedev achieved the feat.
His determination on court was unparalleled and his fighting spirit will be etched into tennis history for decades to come, that match against Marco Baghdatis in 2008 for example.
From myself at eight, to now at 26, I want to thank Hewitt for the memories, because some of those moments staying up late as a child were some of my fondest.