But such was the case between these grittiest of competitors, two men who have thrilled crowds with their bustling, never-say-die tennis, both now married men well into their 30s, but one about to play his 877th and last ever singles match. Hewitt, in his 20th appearance at his home Grand Slam, chose his biggest Australian stage to retire.
Their three meetings had all been in Grand Slams, the first a win to Hewitt at Wimbledon in 2006, the others victories to Ferrer at Roland Garros in 2008 and the US Open in 2012: This last would complete the set.
The two had much in common—work ethic, intensity, huge heart—that their baseline tussles, punctuated by occasional sprinting forays to the net, mirrored one another. But in reaching this stage of their careers, Ferrer ranked No8, Hewitt ranked 308, they had taken contrasting paths.
A brash Hewitt had burst from the gates to win his hometown title at Adelaide at 16, and was part of the 1999 Davis Cup winning team—and went on to become the most prolific Davis Cup player. He quickly won two Grand Slams, the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002, plus two Masters Cups, in 2001 and 2002, all before Ferrer had played a single Grand Slam match. And Hewitt became the youngest ever No1, age 20, while Ferrer did not reach his career-high No3 until his 30s.
Both hit a similar brick wall as a golden era kicked in, dominated first by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, later reinforced by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, and the slower-maturing Ferrer continues to be perhaps the best player on the tour without a Grand Slam title.
But the later, slower maturing of Ferrer may also have proved to be his saviour: He is rarely injured, shows no sign of diminishing fitness, and continues to pass new milestones.
Hewitt, however, has been through the physical mill, in a story littered with injuries and surgery. For a man whose energy and effort leave a blur across the court, anything less than 100 percent fitness is like throwing the off switch. In 2008 he had hip surgery, in 2010 it was surgery on the other hip followed by a hand injury. In 2011, he had foot surgery, battled with a groin injury and missed the end of the year with ongoing foot problems.
In 2012, he had surgery first to a right toe then to a left toe, but the next year, he played a remarkable US Open, reaching the fourth round with a stunning five-set effort over the then No6 Juan Martin del Potro before losing to Mikhail Youzhny in another five-set marathon. The next year he would win his first two titles since 2010, beating old mate and adversary Federer in the Brisbane final into the bargain.
And only last summer, the many qualities that have made this man so formidable came to the fore, again in Davis Cup. It was against Kazakhstan, and Australia’s young guns had, against expectations on home soil, lost the opening two rubbers. Step up, Hewitt and Sam Groth to win the doubles, and then go on to win the remaining singles rubbers to snatch the tie. Hewitt, in the process, won his nation first-ever live fifth rubber.
This week, he opened with a straight-sets win over fellow Aussie wild-card James Duckworth, but this second task was an altogether different matter. Ferrer is not, he said, one to have idols: but Hewitt is. So much so that the shy Spaniard described getting a signed T-shirt of his hero in 2008—the first year that Ferrer broke the top five—and it remains the only ‘fan’ possession in his Spanish home.
Ferrer, though, would not be overwhelmed nor would he give anything less than 100 percent, even against Hewitt, even in the face of a packed Rod Laver Arena willing their man to one more comeback.
For Hewitt was playing comeback almost from the start. The rallies were, as might be expected, long and taxing, but Hewitt faced a break point in the first game, was broken in fifth, and once again to leave Ferrer to serve out the set, 6-2.
The first game of the second set brought every atom of Hewitt’s fighting spirit to the fore as he fended off two break points, but his body was already feeling the pressure: a trainer massaged the offending left thigh, yet Hewitt was still broken in the fifth game, and Ferrer made the first love hold of the match for 4-2.
Again, Hewitt fought off two break points, one rally going to 24 shots, and the Aussie’s watchword, “C’mon!” marked his success.
More treatment to his thigh, and Hewitt fought like a terrier to try and regain the break. The game played out like a microcosm not just of this match but of every match that either Hewitt or Ferrer has ever played: No quarter given, nine deuces, seven break points, 24 points in all through a roof-raising quarter of an hour. It was to no purpose. Fans tweeted, “Please, Ferrer, throw him a bone!”, but that was in the nature of neither server nor receiver.
Indeed Ferrer responded in wonderful style, showing some the new tricks in his locker, a deft forehand cross-court volley, then a backhand volley and a hold to 15 for the set, 6-4—with a roared “Vamos” as gut-ripping as any Aussie “C’mon”.
Now Hewitt needed a full medical time-out, and it seemed to reinvigorate him. A tough hold, and fight-back from 40-0 to deuce against Ferrer opened the set but Ferrer was ruthless in effort and in placement to the extremes of the court. He broke, but Hewitt, summoning every voice in the arena to his cause, broke back for 3-3—and had the stadium on its feet in the next point as he sprinted the entire diagonal of the court to conjure up a pass off a Ferrer drop-shot.
Yet even that was not enough, and Ferrer broke again, finally ending Hewitt’s campaign, 6-4, after more than two and a half hours.
Ferrer, as gracious a player as you could wish for, tried to explain to Hewitt that he would love to swap shirts in the locker room—the Aussie struggled to hear over the cheers. The emotional Spaniard went on: “Sad day, no, cos Lleyton is finishing his career. I have words for him: he is a marvel for me, an idol… an amazing player. In my career, tonight is going to be very special for me, to play the last match of Lleyton… I have to say, I never had idols but Lleyton is one for me.”
Then it was Hewitt’s turn.
“I gave everything I had like always, that’s something I can always be proud of. My whole career, I’ve given 100 percent… I feel honoured to have this love and support from this great crowd. Playing for Australia has always been my biggest honour, getting the gold jacket off John Newcombe and Tony Roche when they picked me to play Davis Cup was one of the biggest days of my life, and I feel fortunate to finish here.”
He is not, as it happens, finished quite yet: He will play a second-round doubles match tomorrow with Groth: There won’t be an empty seat.
But surely Hewitt will relish his new role as captain of his Davis Cup squad, and what a time to be taking it on. While he was leaving court with his three beloved children, the 23-year-old No16 seed Bernard Tomic was beating Simone Bolelli to set up a Round 3 meet with fellow Aussie John Millman, and No29 seed, 20-year-old Nick Kyrgios would tomorrow play Tomas Berdych to reach Round 4.
Among the tributes played to Hewitt on court was one from Kyrgios: “You’ve taught all us young kids a lot. Hopefully you can hang around and keep mentoring us all.”
The fiery, now mellow, Hewitt still has plenty to give.