THE last Wimbledon singles contest of 2002 championLleyton Hewitt’s career was a back-and-forth, four-hour tussle in which he saved three match points before finally succumbing 11-9 in the fifth set.
He might have lost, but he did not go gently. It felt fitting. Even to Hewitt himself.
“Pretty much sums up my career, I guess. My mentality – going out there and, you know, ‘never-say-die’ attitude. I’ve lived for that the 18, 19 years I’ve been on tour,” Hewitt said.
“As I tell people, it’s not something I work at. I’m fortunate that I have a lot of self-motivation to go out there and get the most out of myself, whether it’s in the gym, behind the scenes, whatever.”
Hewitt, a former No 1 whose two major championships include the 2001 US Open, lost in the first round at the All England Club yesterday, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, 11-9 to Jarkko Nieminen of Finland.
Afterwards, Hewitt stood in the middle of Court No 2 and basked in a standing ovation, waving to and saluting the spectators.
“I was always going to leave it out there, everything I had in the tank. I certainly did that,” the Australian said. “There was a couple of times the match could have gotten away from me at certain stages and I found a way of hanging in there.”
He is now 34, a father of three. His ranking is 118th, and he has won one of eight matches this season, his final full year on tour. His last tournament will be next year’s Australian Open.
Hewitt would have loved to add that home title to his other majors, but Wimbledon will always hold a special spot in his heart. A baseliner who used to wear a baseball cap backward on court and was known for yelling “Come on, Rock!” at himself – a nod to the Sylvester Stallone film character Rocky Balboa – Hewitt was only 21 when he beat David Nalbandian in the final at the All England Club 13 years ago.
The 2002 triumph also saw him defeat Britain’s Tim Henman in the last four.
He never did add another major trophy to his collection. His career was a series of fits and starts in recent years because of injuries and operations.
Now there is a new generation of young Australian men, including 20-year-old Nick Kyrgios, who is seeded 26th at Wimbledon, and Bernard Tomic, who is 22 and seeded 27th.
Both won yesterday. Another of the 11 Australian men in this year’s main draw – the most since 2000 – is 19-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis, who lost in the singles yesterday, but will be Hewitt’s partner in doubles.
“His attitude and competitiveness, I think, is second to none. Maybe Rafa [Nadal] and him are the greatest competitors of all time,” Kyrgios said about Hewitt. “When you got him still playing Davis Cup, leading the charge, I think when he’s training and you watch that, it’s pretty special. I think it carries a little bit toward us guys.”
A day before facing Nieminen, Hewitt went to Centre Court with a pal and sat alone for a bit, “just soaked it up.”
“For me, it’s the home of tennis. I don’t get the same feeling walking into any other grounds in the world, no other tennis court, no other complex, than I do here,” Hewitt said. “I do get goosebumps walking into this place.”