LONDON—If you won the lottery, would you keep doing your job? Lleyton Hewitt would. In a sense, that’s exactly what he’s doing now. The 32-year-old is, after all, playing with house money at this point, his legacy assured with all his titles, including a Wimbledon and U.S. Open. After so many injuries and surgeries that I’ve lost track of them all, there must be something pretty powerful that keeps the former No. 1 sweating and running and struggling on the court, when he could stay home, play with his children, polish all those trophies. Hewitt said on Monday that the Grand Slams and the Davis Cup are what he’s playing for now, which doesn’t explain terribly much, really, when you think about it.
If you don’t need the money, and you’re no longer playing to define your career, it must be because you’re passionate about what you do—or perhaps because you don’t know what else there is. I’m watching Hewitt at the beginning of his match today, playing a man ten years his junior and ranked 54 places above him, on a cold and windy day beneath lowering clouds and in front of a sparse crowd, and what I’m thinking is: Can this really be fun for you? Then, early in what turns out to be a comprehensive victory over rising star Grigor Dimitrov, Hewitt is chasing down a ball and a slip on the grass turns into a full-on knee-slide, like a rock star punctuating a successfully-delivered anthem. He gets the ball back nevertheless, wins the point, pops back up on his feet like a jack-in-a-box, and gives a triumphant fist-pump to his box and, yes, perhaps that’s what love looks like.
By contrast, Dimitrov’s most memorable moment in the match comes when he manages to somehow laugh off mishandling a ball directly into his groin. It’s a nice comedy moment and a metaphor for his performance all in one neat package—no pun intended. The young Bulgarian is being thoroughly outplayed, but he’s also putting in an underwhelming performance. He’s scrambling at the back of the court from the first point of the match, and while this has a lot to do with Hewitt’s play—the Aussie is effective and incisive from the start, no mere putting the ball back in play today—that’s not the whole story. When Dimitrov does take the initiative on attack—and manages to keep the ball in the court—it’s devastating. It takes him quite a while to realize that’s what he needs to do, though, and by the time the penny drops, he’s a set and a break down and too rattled to execute consistently.
There’s no such uncertainty or ill-preparedness where Hewitt is concerned. He crafts an early break, slicing short into the court, yanking Dimitrov forward so he’s always desperately lunging for the ball. He mixes up the pattern of play wherever possible and only plays baseline rallies on his own terms, side-to-side stuff behind strong serving, going for the lines rarely but effectively. Dimitrov isn’t making a lot of first serves, and he’s making a poor fist of defending his second. Later, in his press conference, Hewitt will rightly mention his returning as a strong aspect of his game today.
The 6-4, 6-3 scoreline doesn’t look particularly crushing, but the outcome of the match never really felt in doubt. Dimitrov is always one step behind, fighting to catch up, to get on top of things. There’s a glimmer of hope at the beginning of the second set, as he handles Hewitt’s awkward blocked return well for the first time and produces a lovely sequence of forehands to maneuver his opponent out of position, but it’s squandered when he nets the finishing shot and a backhand long gives up the break. Another brief glimpse comes a couple of games later, after the aforementioned ball-related mishap, which seems briefly to loosen Dimitrov up. He makes a lovely cross-court backhand winner, but at 30-30 he can’t get the return off a Hewitt serve that’s no more than respectable into the court. It’s just not good enough.
Hewitt finishes the match in style with a perfectly-worked slice approach to force a Dimitrov error, and trots out to receive some warm applause from the crowd. There’s a lot of talk lately about the ‘greying’ of tennis, the increasing age of the top players and the lack of meaningful challenge to the hegemony from the younger generation. These are all justifiable concerns, but it can’t be any pleasanter to be asked after every match, as Hewitt says he is, when you’re finally going to retire, than it must be to be asked after every loss when you’re finally going to break through. A great match can give you a moment’s respite, though. Today, Hewitt is asked about troubled countryman Bernard Tomic, about transitioning to grass, and about the cricket, but not about any future further away than his third-rounder with Sam Querrey.
On a frustrating, rain-addled day like today, it’s such a relief to watch a good match that you might be forgiven for thinking that tennis players are less greying than they are increasingly evergreen. Hewitt probably doesn’t need any additional consolations today, but when he next loses—or when he eventually does retire—he can take solace in the fact that one record he holds is unlikely, according to the current trends, ever to be beaten: He was the youngest man to ever become world No. 1. An idiosyncratic record but one which—like the man who holds it, if he has anything to say about it—is going to stay standing.