They Said What? Always Respected, Never Loved

Tuesday, October 01, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

“I don’t know if I’ll be around when I’m 35, but it’s great for Tommy. I saw him a few years ago in Halle after a couple of his surgeries, and he was really struggling. . .I‘m really happy for him.”—Thirty-two-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, following his win over Tommy Haas the other day in Beijing, in the first match these two have played in over nine years.

Just who does Hewitt think he’s kidding? Of course he’ll be around when he’s 35, at least he will be if he can ride, walk, hobble, or crawl to a tennis court. The only thing likely to keep him away is further injury (he’s already bounced back from a number of serious injuries, including two that required surgery), but for the moment he’s playing like the “Rusty” Hewitt of yore.

The combined age of Hewitt and Haas is 67, and it’s hard to say which of them is the more inspirational story these days. What we do know is that both of these guys are lifers in this game, true hard cases. If they were men of the cloth, they’d be working among lepers; if they were felons, they’d be getting collared for robbery just days after last being released from prison. If they were men of the wild west, they would be squinty-eyed bounty hunters, gone gray at the temples but still riding the owl hoot trail.

The major difference between the two is that while Haas has been ranked as high as No. 2, he’s on the short list of “best player never to win a Grand Slam.” It’s an honor, albeit a bittersweet one, easily forgotten in the wake of all the time Haas has missed, or spent in rehab or on the comeback trail.

It’s different with two-time Grand Slam champ and former No. 1 Hewitt, but he too was dealt a tough hand—and I’m not just talking about that history of injury he shares with Haas. 

Hewitt remains the youngest man ever to be ranked No. 1—he was just 20 and change at the time—and he made that breakthrough at a time when the great tennis tradition in Australia was in collapse. Here he was, the blue-eyed, fair-haired archetypal “Aussie battler” who ought to have had the world in the palm of his hand. If he did, he either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

The striking detail in Hewitt’s biography is how few fans and pundits truly embraced him, even when he was making history. We like to think that we give all players their just due because their efforts are so obviously and compulsively quantified. But let’s face it, personality comes into it, in a big way. And the reality is that even Hewitt’s own fellow countrymen had a hard time taking a shine to him.

It’s not too late, though, and in recent years Hewitt has done a fine job earning respect if not exactly love. Here we are obsessing over how Roger Federer might handle dropping to No. 6, or 9, or—perish the thought—No. 12 on the computer, while Hewitt, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, is No. 59. That’s fifty-nine, and he’s totally cool with it. That’s a hard case for you.

This guy is all heart, and when it comes to respect and love he’s a repository of both—for the game. Maybe the light in which Hewitt saw his own wonderful U.S. Open run this year (he upset No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro and made the fourth round) gives us the best insight into how this gnarly, pugnacious man thinks, and how little quit there is in him.

“The most important thing for me was to try and get Australia back in the World Group. That’s been one of my biggest goals the last two or three years,” Hewitt told the press in China. ”I feel like all my preparation and how I played the U.S. Open was perfect preparation going into the Davis Cup against Poland. I went out there and played great there on clay.”

There you have it. You may not like Hewitt’s game, you may not like his personality. But isn’t it great to have a guy like this amongst us, one whose sun doesn’t rise and set exclusively on himself and his Grand Slam results?

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