Lleyton Hewitt surged into the tennis spotlight in 1998 when, ranked #550 in the world and not even seventeen years old yet, he won an ATP World Tour tournament in Adelaide. From there, his career took off. Hewitt is a 2-time Grand Slam champion, winning the 2001 US Open and Wimbledon in 2002. He ended both of those years at #1 in the world, winning the year-end championships as well. He has won at least one tournament in every year from 1998-2010, except for an injury-shortened 2008 season. And, of course, Hewitt will always be remembered for winning one of the best points in tennis history, and certainly in recent memory.
Hewitt came into his prime at a time when great tennis players were lacking. The previous generation of greats-Sampras, Agassi, Rafter, etc. were in their decline and no one had yet stepped up to take the mantle from them. The next generation of Federer, Roddick, Ferrero, Davydenko, Nalbandian, etc. were not yet ready to be at the top of the tennis world. That is what made Hewitt so great so early. He matured, both mentally and physically, much faster than his peers. While Federer was still struggling to find consistency and enter the top 10, Hewitt was already a Grand Slam champion and World #1.
The one thing that has held Hewitt back in his entire career was his size. For quite a while he was too small to get as much power on his shots as he would have liked. He spent a good deal of his career trying to bulk up so that he could play a more physical style of baseline tennis. Also, injuries bothered him on-and-off throughout his career. Thankfully, he didn’t miss any serious time until he was forced to miss a few months in 2008 with a hip injury.
Now, however, he has been dealing with a foot injury for a few months. He has dropped to #66 in the world and is already ranked low enough that he won’t get a direct acceptance into the draws of bigger tournaments (except for Slams, obviously). He has to defend over two-thirds of his points from now until the end of Wimbledon and if he fails to do well could fall well out of the top 100. That would mean that to get into most tournaments he would have to play qualifiers, something I just can’t see Hewitt willing to do. Also, he is now building a family with three young children at home. All of this has to lead us to wonder: Is Lleyton Hewitt on the brink of retirement?
The one thing that would make us feel that Hewitt will never retire is the way he plays tennis. Hewitt is probably the most emotional player tennis has seen in a very long time. Many times it feels like his body has given out and he is just continuing on heart alone. He points to his fans and his box as often as he can in triumph. His great plays just spur him on to more great plays because he plays the game on momentum and adrenaline. Because of this, he has a 30-16 career record in fifth sets (Federer, by comparison, is only 18-14). His style of play tells us that he never gives up. Still, I can’t see him willing to play qualifiers just to get into tournaments.
One other thing to consider that will (hopefully) keep Hewitt around is the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The tournament will be played on grass, at Wimbledon. Hewitt has fared poorly in Olympics in the past, never advancing past the second round. It is also known that probably the one thing he wanted in his career more than anything else was to win an Australian Open for his country. He lost a heartbreaking final in 2005 to Marat Safin and hasn’t been past the fourth round since. A shot at an Olympic medal might not make up for that, but it would definitely ease the sting a little. It certainly would be an accomplishment he has never come close to yet in his career, and 2012 would definitely be his last chance.
And keep in mind, Hewitt has fallen out of the top 100 due to injury before. While I cannot see him playing qualifiers for bigger tournaments, I can definitely see Hewitt playing a decent number of smaller tournaments so that he can keep his ranking high enough to compete at the Slams. He did something very similar in 2008 and I don’t see why he wouldn’t do it now. I think Hewitt will play the Slams as long as he can still get direct acceptances into the main draws, but I do think that he will soon scale back his playing time so that he can be with his family.
Of course, Hewitt still has the talent and heart to be a top player. If he can overcome this foot injury and have great runs at Roland Garros or Wimbledon or both I expect him to stick around as long as he can. I do not think that Hewitt is anywhere near done in terms of physical ability. Less than one short year ago he beat Federer in the Halle final, becoming only the second player to beat Federer on grass since 2003 (the other was Nadal in that classic 2008 Wimbledon final). Hewitt is still relatively young at the age of 30. That’s obviously well past his prime, but it is still a few years before most players retire. And while we always hope that Hewitt will play as long as possible, no one could really begrudge him wanting to be with his family. As tennis fans we want to see Hewitt play for a long time, but we still have to worry just how much longer it will actually be.
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