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Steve Flink: Hewitt's Last Bid

1/20/2009 1:34:00 PM

by Steve Flink

As the Australian Open got underway over the last couple of days, I was struck by a number of things. No major among the men has been more eagerly awaited by the cognoscenti of the sport than this one. So many questions will be answered over what promises to be a gripping fortnight. Can Roger Federer step forward, win a second straight major, and put himself in a tie with Pete Sampras for capturing the most Grand Slam championships? Will Rafael Nadal be able to elevate his game and come away with a sixth major and his first on hard courts? Does Novak Djokovic have the gumption and the poise to successfully defend the crown her won a year ago? And is this a seminal moment for Andy Murray as he gives it everything he has to collect a first Grand Slam title?

The answers will be fascinating, and the drama and suspense surrounding the leading players is almost tangible. But, at this stage of the tournament, before we have made it to the finish line and find out who will rise to the occasion and take the first major of 2009, I find myself thinking about an esteemed individual who has won two Grand Slam championships in his distinguished career. He made it to the final of the Australian Open four years ago. He finished two years in a row---- 2001 and 2002--- residing at the very top of his profession as the best tennis player in the world. His name, of course, is Lleyton Hewitt, and he was ushered out of this first major of 2009 in a five set, opening round contest by the explosive Fernando Gonzalez.

Hewitt will turn 28 at the end of January, and I believe his time as a player who can contend for the premier titles is swiftly running out. This is his 12th year as a professional tennis player, and he is unmistakably past his prime. Moreover, Hewitt has been a compromised figure over the past year because of an ongoing hip problem. In 2008, he battled the nagging pain in his left hip, and yet he still reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon before losing to Roger Federer. His year came to an abbreviated end when he had surgery for the hip on August 16.

And so for the first time since the year he turned pro in 1998, Hewitt finished outside the top 25 in the world. He currently stands at an unthinkable No. 70. Perhaps the surgery will set Hewitt up for bigger and better things in 2009, but maybe not. He will still have his work cut out for him to find a way back to the land he once inhabited in tennis, to the place reserved for competitors who can shake things up at Grand Slam events and perhaps even make a run for one of the "Big Four" titles. The view here is that those days are behind Hewitt, and he can no longer perform at level.

But let's take a closer look at what Hewitt did in his heyday, because there can be no dispute that he will one day be inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 1997, a month shy of his 16th birthday, Hewitt established himself as the youngest qualifier ever at the Australian Open. The following year, not yet 17, he won his first ATP Tour event in Adelaide and became the lowest ranked player (at No. 550) in the history of the tour to record a tournament win. In that Adelaide event, he upended Andre Agassi in the penultimate round.

In 1999, he played a leading role in lifting Australia to victory in the Davis Cup. By the end of that year, he was well on his way to greatness, standing proudly at No. 22 in the world. The following year, Hewitt was the first teenager since Pete Sampras to garner four titles in a season, and his consistency and determination carried the Australian to a No. 7 year-end status. Now he was on the edge of the best tennis he would ever be able to offer.

Hewitt was not about to waste his opportunity. In 2001, he celebrated some immense milestones. He finished that campaign as the first Australian ever to conclude a year at No. 1 in the world on the ATP computer, and he was the youngest since the inception of the official computer rankings in 1973 to rise to the top. Remarkably, he was not yet 21. He secured six singles titles during that banner year, including the prestigious year-end prize at the Tennis Masters Cup in Sydney. Most impressive of all, he took the U.S. Open title with a 7-6, 6-1, 6-1 triumph over Pete Sampras. Ascendant as he was, the feisty Australian Open was not ready to stop soaring.

In 2002, Hewitt stayed at No. 1 all year long, won five titles, made a remarkable $4,619,486 in prize money, and defended his crown at the Tennis Masters Cup. Most significantly, he won Wimbledon. To be sure, some daunting adversaries were removed from his path. Most notably, seven time champion Sampras departed in the second round. Andre Agassi and Marat Safin were upset on the same day. Hewitt's draw was golden, and he took apart an understandably apprehensive and awestruck David Nalbandian in a straight set final.

And yet, good draw or not, Hewitt was worthy of the honor, and his hard work and capacity to play effectively on all surfaces was rewarded at the All England Club that year. I thought then that he was going to have at least three more big and productive years, and felt he would win three or four more majors. But none of us were prepared for the full-fledged and rapid maturation of Roger Federer, who claimed his first major title at Wimbledon in 2003 and never looked back.

Federer lost seven of his first nine meetings with Hewitt from 1999 to 2003, but has since defeated his old rival 12 times in a row. Many of those victories were at the biggest tournaments. Six of them were in majors. Federer played one of the most inspired matches of his career to crush Hewitt 6-0, 7-6 6-0 in the finals of the 2004 U.S. Open. In the first set of that clash, Federer won 24 of 29 points and was unassailable. It may have been the greatest set he has ever played in a final at a Grand Slam event. Federer also upended Hewitt in the semifinals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2005; Hewitt could well have won either of those tournaments.

Surprisingly, it was not Federer who stopped Hewitt when the Australian had his one and only serious opportunity to rule at his nation's championship. At the 2005 Australian Open, Hewitt accounted for the fast emerging Rafael Nadal in a tumultuous five set, round of 16 appointment before removing Nalbandian 10-8 in the fifth set and subduing Andy Roddick in a four set semifinal. He took the first set 6-1 from the mercurial Marat Safin in the championship match, but could not find a way to hold back the flowing Russian thereafter, bowing in a four set final.

Hewitt was still among the elite at No. 4 in the world when 2005 came to an end, but he fell to No. 20 by the end of the following year, and has struggled ever since. It was never easy for Hewitt to stay ahead of the pack even when he was much younger. He relied on his industriousness and ingenuity, on the size of his heart, on the depth of his ambitions. But Hewitt--- much like Michael Chang--- did not have any overwhelming weapons. He improved his first serve, and outside of Agassi he had perhaps the best return of serve in the game during his prime years.

And yet, Hewitt had to work inordinately hard to prevail in matches, and undoubtedly that took its toll. Like Chang, his mobility carried him to most of his triumphs, but I don't believe he will ever have the foot speed he possessed seven or eight years ago. So I watched Hewitt with considerable interest last night on television as he confronted the No. 13 seed Fernando Gonzalez in the opening round of the Australian Open. I had seen Gonzalez dismantle Hewitt two years ago during his stirring run to the final, and wondered if Hewitt would find a way to retaliate this time around.

He nearly did. Hewitt was fortunate yet opportunistic in salvaging the opening set. He was down 0-40 on his serve in the opening game but held on. At 5-5 in that first set, he trailed 0-30. The Chilean let him off the hook both times, and then surrendered his own serve at 5-6. He led 30-0 in that game, double faulted, and opened the window wide for Hewitt to get the break. But Gonzalez--- sprinkling the court with dazzling forehand winners, exploiting his slice backhand intelligently, stepping up the pace of his serve--- rolled through the second and third sets with utter ease and conviction.

Gonzalez seemed to have complete control of his own destiny, but he wavered in the fourth set and lost it. Now Hewitt's chances seemed reasonably good. He had won 27 of 38 career five set encounters. He had the audience fervently on his side. He remains one of the finest competitors in tennis. Gonzalez, however, regrouped and went ahead 3-1, 40-30 in the fifth set. He did not close out that game, and double faulted his serve away. It was 3-2. They were back on serve. And Gonzalez was in trouble as cramps were setting in.

He was given a crucial reprieve as a trainer saw him at the changeover, and the Chilean quickly reasserted himself. He rolled to 5-2, served for the match at 5-3, and held at love in a commanding final game, carving out a 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 triumph in this meeting of former Australian Open finalists. To be sure, Gonzalez was fortunate to come away with a win after his physical frailty was exposed in the last set. But, in turn, Hewitt would have been lucky to gain a triumph considering how thoroughly he was outplayed in the second and third sets.

The view here is that Hewitt is unlikely ever again make it to the latter stages of a major. In many ways, the game has largely passed him by, and his old brand of play is not going to work nearly as well as it did when he was at his zenith. With his diminished mobility, Hewitt simply can't compete at the same level. The feeling grows that he is closing in on the end of his career. He could make it back to the top 30 in the world and might even crack the top 20 again, but is that worth it to a man who once tasted the champagne? The view here is that this is probably going to be Lleyton Hewitt's last year in professional tennis, but, if that is so, he should leave with his head held high, and realize that he could not have asked more of himself.

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