Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
22. Lleyton Hewitt
Years played: 1998–2016
Major titles: 2 (2002 Wimbledon, 2001 US Open)
When a 20-year-old Hewitt stunned a 30-year-old Pete Sampras in three quick sets to win the 2001 US Open, the new decade seemed to have ushered in a new era in men’s tennis. Backwards hats and baseline grinding would be in, net-rushing and one-handed backhands would be out. Those things largely proved to be true, but while Hewitt signaled the rise of a new generation of ATP stars, he wouldn’t end up leading it.
For two years, Hewitt stayed ahead of the pack. He won Wimbledon in 2002, helped Australia to Davis Cup titles in 1999 and 2003, and finished 2001 and 2002 ranked No. 1. All in all, Hewitt would spend 80 weeks in the top spot, 10th most in the Open era. Few players have ever done as much with what they were given.
Not quite six feet tall, Hewitt wasn’t blessed with a big serve, a killer forehand, or magical volleying skills; he wasn’t particularly comfortable attacking at all. But there was a reason he was called the Little Battler back home. Hewitt lived for the fight; he’s better known for his ultra-aggressive celebrations—the punch-to-the-gut Lawnmower and the fingers-in-the-face “Vicht!” sign were two of his signature moves—than he is for any of his shots. More important, though, Hewitt was a smart, resourceful competitor who could subtly adapt his game to any opponent.
When he was No. 1, Hewitt’s pugnacity rubbed many fans and fellow players the wrong way. “Inside the court, you really feel like killing him,” Guillermo Coria once said. But as the years piled up and his ranking slid down, his popularity grew. In his 30s, Hewitt could still go to battle, and still mount a comeback, but he struggled to win the five-set matches that he had once willed to go his way. The player who began as s symbol of a new generation ended it as the symbol of something that never changes: The warrior who fights, futilely, against the encroaching vulnerabilities of age.
Defining Moment: Peak Hewitt occurred in the 2003 Davis Cup semifinals against Switzerland, when he came back from two sets and match points down to beat Roger Federer. Australia would go on to win the Cup, but Federer would go on to win his next 10 matches over Hewitt.
Watch: Hewitt reflects on 2001 US Open title