They Said What? Rusty Never Sleeps
“Yeah, the game at five-all in the fifth, I could have easily have won that game. I played a pretty good game. I just missed a backhand wide on my game point to go up six-five. It’s a game of inches out there, really.”—Thirty-two-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, after he was beaten in the fourth round of the U.S. Open by Mikhail Youzhny, 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-5.
NEW YORK—I chose to use this anodyne quote culminating in one of the oldest clichés in the book because it tells us a lot about Hewitt—not just how he is, by nature, but why he has probably been the least loved and certainly the least lionized No. 1 player since Ivan Lendl.
Hewitt, affectionately dubbed “Rusty” (after the callow youth in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies), never did learn how to work a room, stroking pundits and seducing fans. He’s been one of the great masters of understatement in this age of bombast. It’s a habit, incidentally, shared by some of his greatest tennis forebears in Australia.
Here he was at the U.S. Open, making a remarkable run for a man of his age, particularly one who’s suffered so many physical pains and injuries (he’s had five different surgeries; the most recent, on his foot, was so risky doctors warned that he may never be able to play again). Notwithstanding, Hewitt knocked off, in order, Brian Baker, No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro, and Evgeny Donskoy—none of them in straight sets. Counting the loss to Youzhny, Hewitt played two thrilling five-setters.
So where were the sentimental, prime-time television features with pundits soberly recounting the travails of the youngest-ever top-ranked player in ATP history and former champion at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open? Where was the spontaneous eruption of a love affair with the crowd, a la Jimmy Connors or Andre Agassi or Gustavo Kuerten, a romance so bewitching that it stole the headlines, day after day?
Where was the abiding respect and admiration so freely expressed for that other 32-year-old who also lost in the fourth round, the Swiss guy whose name escapes me at the moment?
Oh, there was some of that here and there, but mostly generated by rather than bestowed upon Hewitt. He’s created countless dramatic moments through a combination of his marvelous combative abilities and his mortifying, late-career inability to close out matches. Against Youzhny, Hewitt led the fourth set 4-1, two games from a quarterfinal berth. He couldn’t hang on. In the fifth set, Hewitt led 5-3, but instead of his killer instinct kicking in (as in the days of yore), he lost his nerve and Youzhny rolled through the next four games to win the match.
If you were there at Louis Armstrong Stadium, you were recipient to the gift Hewitt offered with his failings. He was brilliant at moments but also creaky and uncertain, a cautionary tale about what happens when your spirit is still willing, but your flesh and your mind are not. You could almost hear those shot nerves of Hewitt’s vibrating like an orchestra of tuning forks as he mangled returns and botched groundstrokes he once might have hit successfully whilst blindfolded.
Had anybody cared, those moments might have been shaped into a grand narrative. They embodied lessons from which people never tire about youth and determination and dominance and delusion and age. Hewitt might have bumped the process along by going beserk, a la Connors in his autumnal heyday, or by articulating all the pathos and glory inherent in his situation in the manner of late-career Andre Agassi.
Instead, Rusty was literal and flat. He wasn’t capable of playing it any other way, never has been. He probably doesn’t even understand how he might have turned the week into a wonderful, sentimental celebration, never mind contemplate doing it. Hewitt doesn’t do sentimental, and he doesn’t do reflective. Or articulate. Or even bitter. What he does is compete, and in his own mind that’s not a very complicated thing, although it’s a bit problematic presently.
“I’ve played through a couple of different generations,” Hewitt said. “Yeah, you’re always trying to work on certain areas of your game. There’s a lot bigger, stronger guys out there obviously dictating play with their serve and sort of forehand out there. You know, one-two tennis.”
Because of all this, what magic Hewitt brought to the tournament evaporated in the warm summer air not long after his matches were over. It’s a shame, but Hewitt doesn’t really see it that way. He couldn’t think about that stuff, even if he wanted to. He’s got a Davis Cup tie against Poland coming up in about two weeks.
If you enjoy reading Pete Bodo at TENNIS.com, you might also be interested in his latest novel, The Reckoning. A revised version of this father-son story set in the Rocky Mountains has just been issued by e-publisher Diversion Books. Click here for more on this grand adventure tale, or to download the book.