US Open 2015: Friendly rivals Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer go their separate ways

Lleyton Hewitt is out of the US Open after losing to Bernard Tomic, while Roger Federer cruises past Steve Darcis

As day turned to night over Flushing Meadows, those fortunate enough to get a seat on that most intimate of show courts, Grandstand, would find one of the US Open’s most familiar and respected figures, the slight, passionate, blood-on-the-court Aussie, Lleyton Hewitt.

Familiar because he won this title 14 years ago, and reached the final again in 2004.

Familiar because he boasted his familiar ‘rebellious teenager’ look of baggy shirt, even baggier long shorts, and back-to-front cap.

Familiar, too, because he was putting together a trademark fight-back against what looked impossible odds—in this case, the Australian who has risen through his own rebellious teenage years to top his country’s rankings, Bernard Tomic.

Impossible odds, because Tomic is now ranked 24, Hewitt ranked so low that he was here courtesy of a Wild Card; because Tomic is 22 to Hewitt’s 34; because Tomic is 6ft5in and Hewitt’s 5ft10in; because Tomic has surged from outside the top 50 at the start of the year via the Bogota title and 34 match-wins while Hewitt would not be adding to his career tally of 30 titles as he headed towards retirement.

For the spirited, hustling, bustling Australian, who has bounced back from surgery to hips and ankles several times over, who became the youngest man to be ranked No1 at the age of 20 after winning the 2001 US Open, then Wimbledon in 2002, and the Masters Cup in both years, will call it a day at his home Grand Slam in Melbourne next January.

And because this was Hewitt, and because he had so often battled back from what looked to be losing positions in New York—on his way to the title in 2001, on his way to the semis in 2005, over Juan Martin del Potro in 2013—the packed Grandstand arena hoped, even expected, that he would do so again.

Hewitt had lost the first two sets, needed treatment on his right leg during the second, and went 2-0 down in the third. More treatment, though, and he was suddenly on a run of three games, suddenly breaking for 5-3, and suddenly winning a set. The crowd went into overdrive, and they got their reward as Hewitt levelled at two sets apiece, and then broke to lead 5-3 in the fifth. He even had his young opponent cramping, even held two match points… but this would be no fairytale of New York.

After almost three and a half hours of high drama, Tomic would break the spell, break Hewitt twice, and win the match, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 5-7, 7-5.

It was, of course, a standing ovation for Hewitt, who did not need to tell the thousands, “I left it all out there again.” He has never done anything else.

For it was that fighting spirit that Hewitt’s exact contemporary, Roger Federer, who had taken to Arthur Ashe court in the midst of this drama, praised above all else in one of his oldest and toughest rivals.

It is easy, in comparing these two 34-year-olds, to find endless differences. Where Hewitt stayed true to his edgy look and on-court character, Federer evolved from oversize shirts and chunky ponytail into one of tennis’s most stylish and sophisticated icons. He also reined in his naturally extrovert personality—on-court, anyway—to improve his competitive focus. So they became, as Hewitt gave way to Federer in both rankings and Grand Slams, like chalk and cheese, not least in their styles of play.

Where Hewitt succumbed to injury, operations and long stretches away from the tour, the victim of his punishing, never-say-die tennis, Federer’s gliding, silky ability to transition from attack, to defence, to attack with the help of a seemingly endless variety of shots, took less of a toll. So while Hewitt was the faster out of the blocks, winning seven of their first nine main-tour matches, the sleek Swiss won their first Grand Slam meeting—in front of Hewitt’s home crowd, as it happens. The Australian go on to win only two of their remaining 18 matches.

Even so, the similarities between these champions are many. Federer and Hewitt are both smart and outgoing characters away from the court. Both have long and productive marriages—though there too Federer has overtaken the Aussie, four children to three.

They stand at two and three on the list of US Open appearances, and where Federer is marking a record 64th consecutive Grand Slam appearance this week, Hewitt is playing his 64th overall. Among active players, they top the list of grass titles, are at Nos1 and 4 in hard-court titles, and top the list of Davis Cup matches.

And naturally, over the years, they have become mates as well as rivals. Only this January, Federer made a detour to Sydney ahead of the Australian Open to help Hewitt launch a new, short-form version of tennis, Fast4.

But on this evening in New York, the gap that has opened between their tennis careers was writ large on Grandstand and Arthur Ashe. Soon after Hewitt launched into his fourth set, Federer launched into his demolition of the hapless Steve Darcis, ranked 66 but made to look like a junior as the Swiss raced through in just 80 minutes, 6-1, 6-2, 6-1.

The Swiss faced and saved just one break point, and hit 46 winners—that’s more than two a game both serving and receiving. And so swift was the execution that he was in ESPN’s interview studio by the time Hewitt took his final bow.

And so, of course, the conversation turned immediately to Hewitt, and Federer’s memory of their first ever match.

“I was 15, in Zurich. I won 6-4 in the third having saved match point—on a dodgy call,” Federer recalled with a twinkle in the eye.

“I came to the net, played a lob, and the umpire called it out but it wasn’t. Had to replay the point. He was angry!”

But Federer went on to pay his rival the biggest of compliments.

“Been a great rivalry with Lleyton… it’s sad seeing him go out, but he’s going on his terms. I’ve admired him in a big way because he was so tough and so fit, at a young age, and he showed me that you could do it.

“And he’s one of those guys who made me change in the process, made me more professional, get my act together, and battle for every single point. We’re totally different players, but I’ve admired him for ever and we’ve always had great matches. It’s great to see him go out with a smile.

“He changed the game to some extent, [and] I think he can be very proud of that because he was the player [who] just wouldn’t miss, best counter-puncher [we’d] ever seen at that point… he would just grind you down. You would attack him and he would pass you.”

Hewitt, for his part, picked Federer as the rival he would most missed playing: “Everything that he can do on a tennis court, it’s second to none. I’ve had a lot of practice sessions before every Major tournament the last couple years with Roger, and I’ve really enjoyed that as well.”

But earlier this year, he talked of his reasons for going: “The motivation is always there. That’s what I will miss about hanging up [the rackets]. But just being at home with the family, and not have to always think about training and getting your body right… It does get harder without the match practice, just to come out and expect to play well against the big guys.”

The time will come, of course, when Federer says the same thing, though judging from recent form—he won the Cincinnati Masters only a fortnight ago, stands at No2 in the rankings, and intends to go for gold at the Rio Olympics—not for some time yet. And in the short term, he will compete with another old friend, No29 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber, for a place in the fourth round. The German, like so many others, faces a losing record, 0-9, against the smiling assassin.

Hewitt will be back for one last hurrah in Melbourne, and to play a supporting role in Australia’s Davis Cup campaign. He may be ready to hang up the rackets on the main tour, but when it comes to patriotic duties, he still has a set of talented young compatriots to inspire.

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