Lleyton Hewitt beats Roger Federer in Brisbane to win first title since 2010
Lleyton Hewitt wins his first title since 2010 with a three-set victory over Roger Federer in the Brisbane International final
When it came to the last match of 2014 on Brisbane’s ‘Pat Rafter’ court, just a week before the start of the Australian Open, it was as though the tennis gods had clubbed together to give the home crowd a winning lottery ticket.
On one side was their top seed, a man cheered at every turn, the winner of that same home Slam four times and never short of its semis in the last decade: Roger Federer.
But on the other side was perhaps the only man on a tennis court to claim a larger place in Aussie hearts, never a winner in Melbourne but champion at the US Open and Wimbledon, and the youngest man, at 20, to hold the ATP No1 ranking: Lleyton Hewitt.
Yet the match-up offered more—much more. For both—now aged 32 and with families—brought one of the most enduring rivalries of the Open era to Brisbane.
They each turned pro in 1998 having already grown used to one another on the junior circuit, but the precocious, bustling energy of Hewitt took him to the top more quickly, where he won his first title—on home soil—in 1998, aged just 16. By the time the slow-maturing gifts of Federer had melded into a first title in 2001, Hewitt had six more under his belt and had won all three of their encounters, the first of them almost 15 years ago.
And until 2003, the picture would stay the same, Hewitt leading their rivalry 7-2. Then everything changed, as Federer blossomed into a near perfect, apparently effortless tennis machine. That year saw him take his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon. It also saw him win the first of a record six World Tour Finals. And it marked the start of a 15-match-winning streak against Hewitt.
And while Federer marched through the next decade, accumulating titles and records with barely a gap in his schedule, Hewitt was beginning to pay the price for his body-punishing, blood-on-the-court style of tennis. 2005 marked the first of what would become a catalogue of injuries and surgery.
First it was his toe, then in 2006 his right knee and 2007 his back. In 2008 he had hip surgery, in 2010 surgery on the other hip followed by a hand injury. In 2011, he had foot surgery, battled with groin injury and missed the end of the year with foot problems. In 2012, it was more foot surgery and a ranking of 233.
For a man whose energy and effort leave a blur across the court, anything less than 100 per cent fitness is like throwing the off switch, and between that first operation in 2005 and Brisbane this weekend, he had won just four titles, none since 2010. And yet…
For Hewitt, nothing matches the competitive fire he finds in tennis and, now with three children to his name, he began 2014 ranked back at 60 and with his old coach from a decade ago, Tony Roche, in his corner. In the last six months he had reached the semis at Queen’s with wins over Juan Martin del Potro and two other top-30 players. At Wimbledon he beat No10 seed Stan Wawrinka. He reached the final at Newport and the semis in Atlanta. Come the US Open, he beat del Potro again in five sets, before losing to No24 Mikhail Youzhny in another five-setter in the fourth round. His next big scalp was Tommy Haas in Beijing, and he beat the No2 seed, Kei Nishikori, in Brisbane to set up this final.
Federer knew, then, that he had a fight on his hands, and he was looking for only his second title since the summer of 2012. He had also had a battle in his semi against Jeremy Chardy and went on to lose a doubles match the same evening. Even so, few would have predicted the opening set that unfolded.
It began with a break of the Federer serve for the first time in the tournament, courtesy of a double fault and two poor forehand errors. He looked sluggish and lacked timing, and in the second game, even with his bigger-framed racket, he played an air shot on an easy backhand.
Federer won his next service game, but that was it. After just 27 minutes, he had been broken twice more, and Hewitt led, 6-1—the result of 22 Federer errors against only three from the racket of Hewitt. The Australian had also dropped just one point on serve, and offered up not a single break point chance, to accumulate 32 points against only 16 from the erratic Federer.
A look at the statistics for the week had shown near flawless serving from Federer: 38 aces and 82 per cent of points won on the first serve. He also converted two-thirds of his break points. Yet Hewitt’s were almost as impressive: 27 aces and 83 per cent of first serve points. When it came to break points, though, Federer had faced only eight, and defended every one. Hewitt had fought off a massive 20 break points—and that resilience would become a key feature of this match.
In the second set, Federer appeared to get a better feel for the ball and, more importantly, a better read on Hewitt’s game as awkward shadows crept across the court. On serve, in particular, Federer produced nine aces, dropping only three points from 22 first serves. Nevertheless, Hewitt had the chance to make a decisive break for a 5-3 lead, only to see Federer save it with volley winner and a couple of aces. The top seed hit straight back with a well-timed break in the ninth game and levelled the match with a love hold, 6-4.
With both now playing fine tennis reminiscent of so many previous encounters, the Brisbane crowd was in full voice: This was becoming just the match they had hoped for, though the momentum was firmly with Federer—or so it seemed.
The third set opened ominously for Hewitt as Federer worked four chances to break via five deuces in the opening game. Federer failed to capitalise time and again, and Hewitt resisted bravely, even handling multiple foot-faults, to hold.
Federer again missed an opportunity in third game, firing a backhand long on break point. What’s more, having served out the second set with three aces, Federer’s serve level dropped to only 47 per cent on his first deliveries and that, against one of the most offensive returners in tennis, is a dangerous place to be. So it was Hewitt who, against the early odds, broke to lead 3-1, when a routine Federer forehand went long.
By the seventh game, Federer had twice as many errors as his opponent, 48 of them, but he also had two more chances to break back. Hewitt put up a perfect lob and, despite a time warning, produced clutch serving to hold.
It was the kind of gutsy response that has won Hewitt so many matches before, and it did so again. He served out, 6-3, to seize his first title on home soil since Sydney in 2005, and his first title of any kind since battling from a set down to win Halle in 2010—his last win over Federer.
In a moving ceremony for these two much-admired players, it was Australia’s most loved and most crowned player, Rod Laver, who did the honours. But it was left to Hewitt to have the last word:
“It’s been a while since I won a trophy. For me to get it from you really means a lot.”
The win takes Hewitt back towards the top 40 for the first time in almost four years, but not quite high enough for a seeding at the Australian Open. Federer will therefore be crossing his fingers that the draw does not throw this old adversary into his path in the first round.