The Fanatics, those bright-yellow tennis nuts from Down Under, were in fine form on Day 1 at Wimbledon. They had helped push their aging hero, Lleyton Hewitt, to the brink of victory over Jarkko Nieminen on Court No. 2, and they had come up with a few new chants along way. Now they were taking a moment to gloat. As Hewitt sat down on the sideline after breaking Nieminen’s serve to make it 4-3 in the fifth set, the Fanatics roared gleefully, “We’re only here for two more games!”
It was a cocky statement, but you could understand their confidence. Hewitt was 5-0 against Nieminen, and while the 34-year-old Rusty was well past his prime, he wasn’t much farther over the hill than his 33-year-old opponent. Each man had annnounced before the tournament that this would be his last Wimbledon. Didn’t it make historical sense that the journeyman Nieminen would take his final bow before Hewitt, a former No. 1 and the 2002 Wimbledon champion?
The answer, to those who have watched Hewitt over the years, and especially over recent years, was: Not necessarily. The undersized, red-faced Aussie, who has been on tour for more than half of his life, will always be a symbol of competitiveness, fighting spirit, and the sporting ideal. Even today, he bounced back from a 0-6 fourth set to lead in the fifth. But as the years have gone by, Hewitt has also come to represent another side of sports: The fragility, both physical and mental, that comes with age.
Much like the 35-year-old Venus Williams on the women’s side, Hewitt never looks like he gets nervous. He struts confidently from point to point as he fixes his strings. He celebrates by jabbing his fingers at his forehead, and when he really got revved up, he gave us the Lawnmower. He has never been afraid to mix it up with an opponent or a chair umpire. Before today, Hewitt had a 32-23 record in five-set matches, and he’s one of those players who can’t be counted out until the final point is played. This is, after all, someone who came back from two sets and a break down down to beat Roger Federer in Davis Cup. Yet more recently Hewitt, like Venus, has struggled to finish the tight matches that he has fought so hard to stay in.
And that’s how he went out Wimbledon on Monday. In the fifth set, neither man could hold serve, and Hewitt couldn’t hold his at 4-3. Then, after righting himself and successfully serving to stay in the match five times, and saving three match points along the way, he sent a routine forehand long on the fourth.
Hewitt, not surprisingly, chose to focus on the fight, rather than the defeat.
“That pretty much summed up my career,” Hewitt said after his 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, 11-9 loss. “My never-say-die attitude. I have lived with that for 18 or 19 years. It’s not something I work on. I just have a lot of self-motivation to get the best out of myself, whether here or in the gym. I’m proud that I went out there and left it all out there.”
Hewitt has been saying good-bye for what seems like years. Each of his many injuries has fueled speculation that his retirement was imminent, but he continued to reappear every January for another hurrah in front of the home folks in Australia, and continued to bolster his season with the wild cards that his status guaranteed him. In 2011, he received a wild card into every event he played. In this decade, we’ve seen players have some of the best results of their careers as they've entered their 30s. Hewitt, who was passed by the Big 4 years ago, wasn’t one of them.
Experience, Martina Navratilova has said, is a double-edged sword for a tennis player. You know what to do in certain situations, but you know all of the things that can can go wrong in a match, too. You also come to understand what you only knew in theory when you were young and brash: That your window of opportunity as a pro is a short one. Hewitt and Venus know exactly how to project confidence; it’s maintaining it on the inside that gets more difficult as you find yourself facing younger, stronger, brasher—and more blissfully inexperienced—opponents. Hewitt lost nine of his last 11 five-set matches.
“I sat in the stands of Centre Court and soaked it all up,” Hewitt said on Monday. “Knowing this was the last time, I wanted to soak it all up.”
Tough old Rusty nearly brought himself to tears: “I was close,” he said, “but not quite.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter how this match ended, or whether Hewitt tightened up in the clutch, or that his time at the top had long since passed. Even as he failed to get over the hump on Monday, the Fanatics chanted “Warrior!” behind him. And when it was over and he acknowledged the cheering crowd, that’s what Hewitt became again: A symbol of the warrior spirit and, like so many of his fellow Aussies, the sporting ideal. Part of being a warrior, of course, is knowing when you’re beaten.
Like those other Aussies, there was nothing melodramatic in Hewitt’s exit. After the final point, he walked back out to the center of the court, jabbed his fingers at his forehead in a version of his traditional “Vicht” sign, and then turned his hand sideways to salute the crowd.