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Steve Flink: Hewitt bows out but still triumphs in defeat

1/14/2014 6:00:00 PM

Appearing in his 18th consecutive Australian Open Championship, competing with a fury and fortitude that has been his trademark all through a sterling career, making a spirited comeback from two sets to love down, the incorrigible Lleyton Hewitt came from the brink of defeat in the opening round and traveled to the edge of triumph before he was ushered out of the event in five tumultuous sets by the industrious and highly competent Andreas Seppi of Italy. The always highly charged Hewitt disregarded 107 degree temperatures, some misfortune and many bad omens to nearly register another of his trademark patented comeback victories. Six times in his career, Hewitt had rallied with gusto from two sets down to win five set matches, and this time he was within one point of realizing that achievement again. In the end, it really didn’t matter that Hewitt was beaten by Seppi, because he gave us one of his signature displays of gumption and character in defeat, and somehow turned a setback into a triumph of sorts. Hewitt demonstrated emphatically that his heart is larger than anyone in this generation with the notable exception of Rafael Nadal.

Consider what happened against Seppi, who will turn 30 in late February—only three days before Hewitt reaches the age of 33. Here were two of the soundest ball strikers in the business, measuring their shots almost impeccably, waging an appealing brand of war from the baseline. This was their seventh career head to head meeting, and unsurprisingly the series was locked at 3-3. From the outset, there was little to separate these two gladiators. Hewitt came out of the gates marginally stronger and sharper, establishing a 3-1 first set lead before Seppi broke back twice to move in front 4-3. But the indefatigable Australian dynamo broke back for 4-4 by prevailing in a typically bruising 27 stroke backcourt exchange. Seppi lose that rally on an errant backhand slice.

Both men held twice to set up a tie-break. Seppi was the better man in that sequence. With Hewitt serving at 3-4, Seppi played a superb angled low forehand drop volley for a winner off a backhand down the line pass from Hewitt. The Italian had the mini-break and made it count. At 5-4, he was fortunate when a Hewitt forehand hung on the net cord but refused to go over. That gave Seppi double set point. He sealed the set with a service winner down the T, as Hewitt’s return floated over the baseline. Seppi promptly broke Hewitt for a 2-0 second set lead as Hewitt misdirected a crosscourt backhand wide. Seppi clearly had the upper hand. He was not broken in that second set. Serving for a two set lead at 5-3, he released an ace down the T at 40-15.

Seppi went up a break at the outset of the third before Hewitt retaliated in the following game. A tie-break seemed inevitable as Seppi served at 5-6, 30-0. But Hewitt collected four consecutive points to break an apprehensive Seppi. The dynamic Australian was back in the match. In the fourth set, the pattern was almost identical. Seppi had the early break, Hewitt responded in kind, and once more Seppi eventually found himself serving at 5-6, 30-0. But the Italian became too cautious, and Hewitt would not allow him to get away with it. Seppi made three straight unforced errors to trail 30-40, and then Hewitt was unshakable in a 23 stroke rally that ended with a crosscourt forehand error from Seppi.

Just like that, improbably, it was two sets all. But once more, Seppi built an early lead, breaking Hewitt in the opening game of the fifth and final set. Seppi moved to 4-2, two holds away from a gratifying win against an old and formidable rival. But Hewitt held at 15 in the seventh game with an ace out wide in the deuce court. At deuce in the following game, Seppi double faulted tamely into the net, and Hewitt surged back to 4-4 when his aggressive second serve return coaxed an error from a harried Seppi.

The drama was far from over. In the ninth game, Hewitt was break point down but he unleashed an unstoppable first serve to the backhand and eventually held on with an ace for 5-4. The Australian sensed he could end it all here. With Seppi serving in the tenth game at 30-30, Hewitt drove a forehand return down the middle that clipped the baseline and was unmanageable for Seppi. Hewitt had rallied all the way from two sets down to reach match point. And yet, Seppi would not surrender. He aced Hewitt wide to the backhand to reach deuce, lured Hewitt into a forehand error, and then released another ace out wide to hold for 5-5. That brave, soaring and tenacious stand brought Seppi back to 5-5.

Hewitt plodded on gamely, arriving at 40-30 in the eleventh game. But Seppi took his second serve forehand return early, and drove it exquisitely into the clear for a winner. Hewitt garnered a second game point, but Seppi stepped in again to make the same winning forehand return. From deuce, Hewitt made consecutive forehand unforced errors, and Seppi had climbed back up the ladder one last time. Serving for the match, Seppi was strategically wise. He served wide to the Hewitt forehand three straight times to elicit return errors, and then concluded the contest with a love hold, making a forehand winner into an open court off Hewitt’s assertive return. Seppi had carved out a 7-6 (4), 6-3, 5-7, 5-7, 7-5 victory in four hours and 18 minutes, and deservedly so. Seppi was marginally better than Hewitt on second serve returns, and he was much more able than the Australian to redirect forehands down the line to conclude points aggressively.

But the fact remains that Hewitt reminded us again why the world of sports is so uplifting. To be sure, he suffered a hard loss after moving within a whisker of victory, but the fact remains that Hewitt has a deep reservoir of pride that ceaselessly carries him past disappointments toward success in other lands. He had done that time and again over the course of his career, and what a remarkable career it has been. Here is a man who stands 5’11” tall and weighs 170 pounds, and yet those numbers simply don’t accurately reflect what a towering individual he has been in his field.

This magnificent match player and ferocious competitor has won 29 singles titles, including two majors. He captured the U.S. Open with a majestic return of serve performance in a 7-6, 6-1, 6-1 final round triumph over Pete Sampras in the 2001 final. A year later, he won Wimbledon. In both 2001 and 2002, Hewitt finished back to back seasons as the top ranked player in the world of tennis, and that is no mean feat. He led Australia to two Davis Cup triumphs in 1999 and again in 2003. In 2005, he made it to the Australian Open final and took the first set from Marat Safin before the enormously gifted Russian struck back boldly to claim that crown.

Hewitt has been beset by all kinds of injuries in recent years, enduring more than his share of surgeries, refusing to stop dreaming no matter how much harsh reality has confronted him. The last time he finished a year among the top 10 in the world was in 2005, when he stood at No. 4. He has been dealt too many difficult blows, and yet he keeps coming back to the arena, keeps striving for something more, keeps hoping he can rebuild the foundation of his prior successes.

Hewitt opened 2014 with his first tournament win since 2010, toppling Roger Federer in the final of Brisbane. That was another prime example of his character and enduring greatness. Federer had beaten Hewitt 15 times in a row before losing to the Australian in the 2010 final at Halle. Federer took their next meeting in Davis Cup a year later, so he had upended Hewitt 16 of the last 17 times they has clashed. And yet, Hewitt doesn’t allow those kinds of facts to get in the way of the story he wants to write. Above all else, Lleyton Hewitt wants to end his career on his own terms, as healthy as possible, as determined as ever, as steadfast in his convictions as he has ever been.

Deep in his soul, he surely realizes that his days of securing Grand Slam singles championships are over. He knows that a return to the elite top ten of tennis is highly unlikely, next to impossible. He understands that in many ways the clock is an enemy he can’t entirely defeat. But know this about Hewitt—he will battle on without hesitation, cherish the great days that now occur less frequently, accept the agonizing losses like the one he had against Seppi in Melbourne, and never lose sight of his largest aspirations.

Lleyton Hewitt lost a stirring encounter in the season’s first Grand Slam event, but the feeling grows that we haven’t seen his last stirring performance.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.