Lleyton Hewitt hasn’t been truly relevant in men’s tennis since the middle of the Bush years. It was eight years ago when he reached a Grand Slam semifinal the last time. Same goes for finishing among the top 20 in the year-end rankings, a feat he last accomplished in 2005.
Not unlike Andy Roddick, Hewitt had the prime of his career cut short by the emergence of Roger Federer. But where Roddick never finished a season ranked lower than 8th and enjoyed a smattering of Grand Slam finals, semifinals and quarterfinals appearances, Hewitt became little more than an afterthought. He’s made just one Grand Slam quarterfinal since 2006.
A win over No. 24 Mikhail Youzhny Tuesday afternoon would have earned him another, but Hewitt fell short in a nearly four hour, five-set marathon match. Regardless of the defeat, he had already scored the biggest upset of the men’s draw, defeating 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in second-round five-setter.
That Hewitt’s victory against Del Potro was such a shock demonstrates just how far the 32-year-old Aussie has fallen. After all, Hewitt himself is a former U.S. Open champion, having won the title in straight sets over five-time winner Pete Sampras in 2001. He also won a Wimbledon championship in 2002 and spent 75 consecutive weeks as the world’s No. 1—the 8th-longest streak in the 40-year history of the rankings. Equally impressive, Hewitt accomplished all this before his 23rd birthday.
When he burst onto the scene with a semifinal appearance in the 2000 U.S. Open at 19 (the youngest U.S. Open semifinalist since Sampras in 1990), one adjective was almost universally used to describe Hewitt: brash.
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The young Aussie was known for his blonde ponytail, proclivity for cursing on the court and screams of “Come on!” after winning crucial points. And, frankly stated, he wasn’t particularly popular in the locker room. “Hewitt is an unfriendly guy and thinks he’s a know-it-all when he’s on the court. He doesn’t have any respect for the opponent,” Spaniard Alex Corretja said in December 2000. Hewitt didn’t do himself any favors at the following year’s U.S. Open, stirring up controversy during his second-round match against American James Blake. After being called for a pair of foot faults by a linesman, Hewitt was heard requesting that the official be removed: “Look at him. Look him and you tell me what the similarity is. Just get him off the court.” Both Blake and the linesmen were black.
Hewitt’s demeanor, however, did little to slow his ascent. He went on to win the U.S. Open in 2001 and reached No. 1 in the ATP rankings before the end of the year. Though he would retain that ranking until early 2003, Hewitt did not achieve the same level of consistent success that top players have enjoyed in recent years. He became the first “baseliner” to win Wimbledon in a decade in 2002 (the once-popular “serve-and-volley” approach has been all-but abandoned at the All-England Club), but fell in the first round the following year and didn’t advance beyond the fourth round at the Australian Open or French Open in either 2002 or 2003.
The next two years saw more consistency from Hewitt but little of the brilliance that carried him to those Grand Slam titles. By 2006, his reputation as a cocky wunderkind had given way to one of an injury-prone star who—at just 25—might have his best days behind him.
By all accounts, Hewitt’s play since his quarterfinal appearance at the U.S. Open in 2006 has affirmed that reputation. Injuries have kept him off the court for stretches throughout the last seven years, and when Hewitt has been on the court, he has struggled to recapture his earlier success. This year’s U.S. Open marks the 15th consecutive Grand Slam in which he’s failed to advance beyond the fourth round.
All of this explains why there will be much less discussion of his exit from the year’s final Grand Slam than that of Roger Federer, who fell to Tommy Robredo on Monday night in straight sets.
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Federer had defeated Robredo in each of their previous 10 meetings, and a win would have almost certainly set up a highly-anticipated quarterfinal match-up with longtime rival Rafael Nadal (the two have never met at the U.S. Open). But Federer—like Hewitt did seven years ago—is finally beginning to show his age. Unlike Hewitt, he didn’t have a signature win in this tournament to hang his hat on.
Still, it’s reasonable to expect that Federer—he of the 17 Grand Slam titles—will rebound from his recent poor showings at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Yes, he is older. Yes, his back seems to be bothering him more than at any other time in his career. And yes, it’s entirely fair to say the Big Four has officially shrunk down to the Big Three. But he’s still Roger Federer and when healthy, he can still be a serious contender.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Lleyton Hewitt is not Roger Federer. His run at the U.S. Open was an impressive one, but even more than Federer, Hewitt wears his aches and his age on his sleeve, face and every other part of his body. By the final games of the fifth set against Youzhny, Hewitt could barely reach for well-struck groundstrokes, let alone run. He was simply gassed. Hewitt remains a gifted tennis player, but in today’s game, relevance is measured on a far steeper curve. More than 11 years after his last Grand Slam title, it’s simply too great a climb for the aging Aussie.