It was not always thus. The brash young Aussie, a slight, blonde, terrier-like teenager, became the youngest tour winner with the Adelaide title at age 16, was part of the 1999 Davis Cup winning team, was a Grand Slam winner and Masters Cup champion by 20, a Wimbledon champion at 21, and the youngest ever No1. He even became engaged to tennis’s darling, Kim Clijsters, but he often wore his heart too vocally on his sleeve.
It would be another woman who worked her magic on Hewitt. In 2005, he married Bec, who he called “my rock” after playing his final match tonight, and the father of three mellowed with the passing years, though never lost the on-court passion and fight.
He was also dogged by injury, but showed the same fight in coming back from repeated surgeries, to both hips and both feet. Along the way, playing for Australia was always at the core of his schedule, and as late as last summer, he played the tie-winning rubber to take his nation to the Davis Cup semis, and remains the most prolific player in Davis Cup.
All these elements have melded into one much-admired Australian hero, and while Hewitt may not have begun his tennis career as the establishment’s favourite, he leaves it, in his 20th Australian Open and his 66th Grand Slam, with the admiration—and in many cases friendship—of today’s finest players.
Roger Federer, against whom Hewitt won both their first match in 1999 and their last, to win the Brisbane title in 2014: “Lleyton, thank you for everything you’ve done for tennis, and thank you for the great rivalry. I loved every moment of it, the good and the bad (most of it is good!). I enjoyed my time on court with you, and enjoy listening to you as a commentator. I wish you only the best with your family now. You have a wonderful family, wonderful kids, and the best is ahead of you, I’m sure about that.”
Rafael Nadal, who lost to Hewitt in his two first appearances at the Australian Open, in 2004 and 2005—Hewitt went on to reach his only final in Melbourne after the five-set 2005 win: “I always have something special with you, you are a big inspiration for my tennis and mentality. And your love and passion for this sport are a great inspiration for the next generation. So thank you very much for all the things you did for our sport and especially thank you for your passion on court.”
Andy Murray, who played against Hewitt in the Aussie’s last Davis Cup appearance, a five-set doubles thriller against the Britons in Glasgow last September: “Congratulations on an incredible career. I’ve loved all the time I’ve spent with you on the court. We didn’t get to play much against each other but all the time I’ve spent on the practice court, I’ve loved it. Your were an idol of mine when I was growing up, and you’ve always been unbelievably nice to me and helpful to me when I’ve been on the tour, and I really, really appreciate that. So enjoy your retirement, it’s well deserved. I wish you all the best: good luck, mate.”
Novak Djokovic, who tasted Hewitt’s fight in his first and only loss to the Australian at the 2006 US Open: “Tennis is going to miss you. You’ve been a great friend and great competitor, and have brought so much to this sport and so much to Australia. I’m glad to be part of the same era as you. All the best.”
Nick Kyrgios, at 20, and with the same spit and fire, is the young player tipped to take Hewitt’s place at the top of the game: “Sad time for you to retire but, you’ve taught all us young kids a lot. Hopefully you can hang around and keep mentoring us all.”
David Ferrer, the man who ended Hewitt’s singles career, made his emotional tribute in the hardest of places, in the centre of a packed Rod Laver Arena.
“Sad day, no? Because Lleyton is finishing his career. I have words for him: He is a mirror for me, an idol—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 was one for me. I have a T-shirt he signed for me. Eight years ago I tell to him he is idol for me, if he can sign me a T-shirt—and he signed. I have it: Is in my house. I have his T-shirt.”
“These are ambassadors of our sport, those guys I’ve had great times with them in the past… Obviously just watching the video and hearing those great players talk about you in that light, you know, was pretty emotional.
“I gave everything I had [tonight] like always, that’s something I can always be proud of. My whole career, I’ve given 100 per cent. It’s never hard to come out here and compete, to play in front of these spectators. Rod Laver Arena is like a second home to me, and I’m just so fortunate to keep having this opportunity 20 times in a row.”
Hewitt now embarks on a new role as captain of Australia’s Davis Cup squad… though not before he plays out the doubles draw with Sam Groth: Round 2 is tomorrow.