Lleyton Hewitt created many iconic moments throughout his career. Whether it was grinding opponents down deep into the night with his relentless play or unleashing a massive “C’mon!’ with his signature lawnmower celebration of him, the Australian earned fans throughout the world with his work ethic and competitive spirit of him.
From stepping into the spotlight aged 15 by qualifying for the Australian Open through the end of his illustrious career two decades later, Hewitt made his mark by embracing challenges. That is why on Saturday, he will be enshrined into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
“I did love tennis in terms of being in control of my own destiny every time I went on the court. It was just you against your opponent out there,” Hewitt told ATPTour.com. “I loved how you had to think outside of the box as well. If things weren’t going well, you had to come up with a different plan to try and work out how you were going to change something around out there on your own. I loved those challenges of it.”
Hewitt never shied away from tough tests, even as a kid. When the Australian was 12, dressed in Andre Agassi’s kit, he visited the home of his future coach, Darren Cahill, and challenged him to play sets. After losing the first two sets against a man who had just left the Tour, Lleyton’s father, Glynn, tried to give him advice.
“Zip it Glynny boy, I’ve got this,” Hewitt quickly said, according to Cahill. Lleyton never backed down as a kid. Some things never change.
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He is unsure exactly where that mentality came from, but attributes at least part of it to his roots in AFL Football, which was his first choice in his pre-teen years. His father also played the sport professionally.
No matter who was across the net and regardless of the circumstances, Hewitt gave it all throughout his career. Although that was evident from his early days on Tour, like when he defeated Agassi en route to the Adelaide title in 1998 as a 16-year-old, that became clear to the wider sports world at the 2001 US Open.
One year earlier he had made the semi-finals in Flushing Meadows, losing to Pete Sampras. This time in the last four, I have faced former World No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, one of his early rivals. At the time, Hewitt had won four of their five matches from him, but defeating a two-time singles major winner in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam is a different beast — for most players, at least.
“I think at that time experience wasn’t the issue, because Lleyton was already developed into a top-class player,” Kafelnikov said. “We knew that sooner or later he would be winning Slams, he would be the No. 1 player in the world, because he had some wins and titles already showing he was going to be there for quite a while.
“I remember to be honest his match against [Andy] Roddick in the quarters and I was hoping that Roddick was going to win that match because I didn’t want to play him in that semi-final. The rest is history now. He beat me quite easily. I never stood any chance in that match.”
Hewitt defeated Kafelnikov 6-1, 6-2, 6-1, positioning himself to play for his first Grand Slam singles title. It was an emphatic, message-sending victory. The Australian was not backing down from anyone.
That would be put to the test again in the final against legendary American Pete Sampras, who did not lose serve in consecutive wins against Top 10 stars Patrick Rafter, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin to reach the championship match.
“I wasn’t terribly nervous before that first US Open final. I’m not sure if it was because I was the heavy underdog going into the final playing Pete. For me probably the most surreal moment was actually the coin toss,” Hewitt said. “I actually had to walk out about to play Pete Sampras in a US Open final, [facing] a guy I’ve idolized and looked up to for so many years. But then doing the coin toss was Ivan Lendl, who was a Hall of Famer, who I grew up going to the Australian Open and watching Ivan every year dominate that tournament.”
As a kid, Hewitt’s parents took him and his sister, Jaslyn, to the Australian Open every year. Lleyton vividly remembers rushing to the back courts to watch Lendl training with his coach, Tony Roche, who would later become Hewitt’s longtime coach and mentor.
“That was a nervous moment, not so much actually playing the match,” Hewitt said of Lendl being on the court. “I don’t remember actually being told that that was happening either. So for me to walk out for my first US Open final and have not only the guy you’re playing in Pete Sampras and his aura from him, but Ivan Lendl as well just to top it off. It was a special moment.”
Hewitt broke Sampras’ serve in the first game of the match en route to a 7-6(4), 6-1, 6-1 victory.
Lleyton Hewitt beat Pete Sampras to capture his maiden Grand Slam singles title at the US Open in 2001.” />
Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Allsport
“I felt like the pressure was all on Pete in a lot of ways as well. I’d beaten Pete before in other tournaments leading in, so I felt confident in that. But I also backed my return of serve, which at the time was probably up there with Andre Agassi with the return of serves on Tour,” Hewitt said. “It was really backing my return against Pete’s serve on that particular day.
“It gave me a lot of confidence breaking him in the first game, even though I got broken in the next game to go back on serve. But it gave me confidence that I was able to do it, and so for the rest of the match, it wasn’t something that I was doubting.”
Hewitt rarely doubted himself. He might not have had a weapon that sizzled like Sampras’ serve, but throughout his career, the right-hander proved he had tools that were plenty good enough, even beyond his competitive spirit, according to Kafelnikov.
“He was quick, his groundstrokes were solid. He was using the power of opponents quite well. When he was on the top of the game, I think even if you would take the best of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, I think he would be right there with them,” Kafelnikov said. “Maybe even if you take the best matches of Lleyton or best spell when he was basically unbeatable, I think he could easily be on the same plateau as these three, particularly on the hard courts, that is for sure.”
Later that year, Hewitt won the Tennis Masters Cup, now known as the Nitto ATP Finals, during which he guaranteed that he would become the youngest year-end No. 1 in Pepperstone ATP Rankings history at just 20.
“I wasn’t afraid at a young age to take it up to the older, better players. I think that was probably the most telling reason why I was able to make the transition from juniors to seniors at such a young age,” Hewitt said. “If you don’t have that inner belief in yourself that you belong there, then you’re not going to do it and it’s going to be a lot harder to make that transition as we’ve seen so many good juniors really struggle to do that for a number of years. I didn’t have the biggest weapons out on the court, but I certainly backed myself with my strengths.”
Hewitt would go on to win the 2002 Wimbledon singles title, finish year-end No. 1 for the second consecutive year that season, lift 30 tour-level singles trophies and earn 65 victories against Top 10 opponents. He also brought his best for Australia leading his country to the Davis Cup title in 1999 and 2003. Cahill said about Hewitt’s efforts for Australia: “When it came to Davis Cup and representing his country, that’s where he truly defined himself and his character. In his eyes, there was no greater honor and he played with his heart and soul every single time he donned the green and gold.
As impressive as Hewitt’s tangible accomplishments are, most people will remember him for the legacy he left behind. When fans think of “Rusty”, they think of “C’mon!” They recall his grit and determination of him. Coaches have long urged their players to compete like Lleyton Hewitt.
“That is something I did pride myself on every time I went out on the court. To be honest, it won me a lot of matches before I actually went on the court in terms of people knowing that I was not going to give up. I was always going to leave it all out there, draw a line in the sand and I wasn’t going to back behind that,” Hewitt said. “It’s something I’m really proud of. The accomplishments probably came because of that reason.
Some dread long, grueling matches and just try to survive. Hewitt embraced those moments and thrived, winning 64.1 per cent of his clashes that went to a deciding set.
“I enjoyed the battle. I think I was prepared for the battle as well most of the time. Probably moreso than a lot of the players I played at certain stages,” Hewitt said. “It gave me more confidence when it got into a match situation like that. If you can go out there and understand that you’ve done all the hard work, it’s one less thing that you have to worry about.
“But I see guys now, like [Rafael] Nadal, if he ever talks about my game or what I did… seeing someone like that, who I see as the greatest competitor our sport has ever seen — possibly the greatest competitor in any sport ever in my opinion — and to see that he drew some inspiration from me going out there and leaving it out on the court, that’s something I’m pretty proud of.”
Alex de Minaur from the Team Zone at the ATP Cup on Thursday.” />
Photo Credit: Peter Staples/ATP Tour
Hewitt has done his best to transfer that mentality to future generations. He is Australia’s ATP Cup and Davis Cup captain, and is always available to his countrymen in need of guidance. John Millman grew up watching Hewitt on television.
“What comes to mind when I think of Lleyton is how much of a competitor he is,” Millman said. “He is one of the biggest competitors to play the game. He wants to win at everything and that is why he was so good, that tenacity.”
Fellow Australian John Peers added: “You can see the drive he has always had for the game, it’s unbelievable. The drive he instills in all the boys is amazing and it is a credit to him on how well he holds himself on and off the court. It is incredible what he has done for the game.”
Hewitt was unable to win his home major, the Australian Open. But whether it was battling on Rod Laver Arena until 4:34 am or reaching the final in 2005 despite a hip problem that prevented him from practicing on days off, the home favorite never gave anything short of his best. Because of that, he is able to keep his head high with no regrets.
“I’m sure it’s a lot easier to live yourself if you’ve ticked every box and done absolutely everything you could have done,” Hewitt said. “I did absolutely everything in my power and certain things could change and may not have gone my way at the US Open or Wimbledon in the tournaments I won or even in the Masters Cups where I was able to clinch the World No. 1 rankings in those years. I look back and I’m just very fortunate for all the hard work and effort I put in that I got the results I feel like I deserved.”
Today’s induction into the International Tennis Hall Of Fame has also been well deserved.