By: Grant Fisken
Rafael Nadal’s early departure from the Aegon Championships on Tuesday would certainly have disappointed the local crowd hoping to see signs of the Spaniard’s return to form ahead of Wimbledon. However, it was the exit of another previous winner of the tournament the day before that was more poignant for the Queen’s Club patrons.
A typically gritty performance from Lleyton Hewitt was not enough to get him through the first round in his final appearance at a tournament he had won four times before. Despite having a match point in the second set against Kevin Anderson, the South African fought back to win 6-7, 7-5, 6-2. With just one victory on tour this year, and at 34 years old, Hewitt is planning to call time on his career after the 2016 Australian Open.
Watching the mature, mellowed Hewitt of today is a sharp contrast to the brash youngster with baggy shorts and long hair that first appeared as a 15-year-old at the 1997 Australian Open. His volatility and high-intensity game won him as many critics as it did admirers in the early days, and it was his straight-sets victory against Pete Sampras in the 2000 Queen’s final that really signaled his arrival in the tennis big-time. Sampras would go on to win Wimbledon a couple of weeks later, while the Australian was brought back to earth with a first round thumping by Jan-Michael Gambill.
Setbacks were not something to dispel Hewitt, and by the end of 2001 he was the number one player in the world with a US Open title under his belt. The following year he would add his third consecutive Queen’s trophy and his first Wimbledon success, beating Argentinian David Nalbandian in the final. Yet, as Hewitt’s wildcard for his final appearance at SW19 has been confirmed, it would have been unthinkable that in the 13 years since that win against Nalbandian, the Australian has failed to add to his two grand slam victories.
Between his Wimbledon win and the last of his four title triumphs at Queen’s in 2006, Hewitt reached two more grand slam finals and three semifinals, but this was in the midst of the emergence of Roger Federer, Nadal and latterly Novak Djokovic. Since the beginning of 2007, the current world number 117 has reached just one quarterfinal in 30 majors, and that was Wimbledon back in 2009. However, his attitude and work-rate, coupled with a slightly calmer exterior have made him a firm fans favourite, even if the results have not followed.
It would be fitting for Hewitt to get one final run-out on Centre Court in his first-round match. Considering he has not made it past round two in the previous four years, one match is possibly all he will have as a SW19 farewell, but one thing is for sure, he won’t be beaten easily. Since he won the tournament in 2002, only two players have knocked him out of Wimbledon in straight sets, Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Even those two would rather avoid an early meeting with the departing Aussie.