Davis Cup 2015: Will Lleyton Hewitt be Australia’s catalyst in his final year?
The Australians were the epitome of team spirit as they geared up for their Davis Cup semi-final clash with Great Britain
The Aussies may be playing a long way from home, but they could not look happier, hungrier or more united in a cause on their final day of training at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow.
The epitome of team spirit, they laughed and joked their way through the post-draw media conference, answered a rogue phone for a suitably sheepish member of the press pack—as much a band of brothers as a team of tennis players.
All of them, of course, want to win this most prestigious of team trophies for Australia, but for their rising stars, there is something else to feed their spirits: Lleyton Hewitt.
The 34-year-old former world No1 and Grand Slam champion is to retire at his home Major, the Australian Open, next January, which means this will be his last Davis Cup campaign. And Hewitt is a giant in Davis Cup competition, not only the most prolific winner among all current players but Australia’s most prolific winner ever—the most match wins, 58, most singles wins, 42, most ties, 41, most years played—this will be his 17th.
He was part of the 1999 winning team while still a teenager, and again the last time Australia won the title in 2003. For his Davis Cup achievements came early, as did so many others in his long career.
At 16, he won his hometown title at Adelaide. The five men he beat (including Andre Agassi in the semis) had a combined total of 1,108 career victories, while Hewitt had none. It made him the lowest-ranked player, at No550, to win in tour history.
In 2000, he was the first teenager to qualify for the Tennis Masters Cup, having won his first Grand Slam doubles title at the US Open. After winning the US Open singles title in 2001, he went on to become the youngest man to claim the world No1. The following year, he won Wimbledon.
And yet his story has been littered with injuries and surgery and, 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 Roger Federer in the Brisbane final into the bargain.
And the many qualities that have made this bustling, never-say-die player so formidable came to the fore in his last Davis Cup outing, the quarter-finals this summer. 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.
Little wonder that Hewitt’s resilience and determination have been at the forefront of his young compatriots’ minds as they prepare to take on their old adversaries, Great Britain, for a place in the final. Teenage star Thanasi Kokkinakis recalled that summer tie: “It was huge.
“Me and Nick [Kyrgios] joked it was all a set-up—to add a nice little bit to [Lleyton’s] career. They agreed!
“No, they definitely bailed us out. We had a shocker, not going to lie about that, but he’s been huge for tennis in Australia, always coming back and playing those five-setters, so for him to win that fifth rubber was huge and just speaks volumes for his professionalism, to show he’s always ready, and killed the fifth rubber. No, we wouldn’t be here without Lleyton and Sam.”
Team captain Wally Masur expanded on the role of Hewitt in the current rising profile of Australian tennis:
“What we’ve always done well is come together in the Davis Cup, and that extends out on the tour. And that is happening now. Guys have been going to the Bahamas [Hewitt’s home] to train with Lleyton, these two have been playing doubles on tour, and that’s what we’re starting to get again, this real momentum that springs from Davis Cup.”
But it was Hewitt’s planned doubles partner Groth who put into words—after riotous joking and leg-pulling among the team—what Hewitt’s presence means to them all.
“We have got the goals, but to have Lleyton in the team and have the opportunity in the semi-final in his last year, obviously we are all aware of the history he has of playing the Davis Cup for Australia. It’s an honour to be on the same team as him.”
Masur also did not discount the possibility of bringing Hewitt to the fore in singles, should the occasion arise, but one senses that the two youngsters, Kokkinakis and the 22-year-old Bernard Tomic, who won both the Australian and US Open junior title before he turned 17 and reached the Wimbledon quarters at 19, relish the prospect of doing this for Australia’s elder statesman.
Perhaps they see some of Hewitt’s famed rebellious youth all those years ago in their own evolution. Perhaps they just want to repay his support. Whatever the incentive, one suspects there would not be a dry eye in the house if Hewitt’s last hurrah came with the lifting of the most flamboyant trophy in tennis come December.