When does a farewell tour not feel like a farewell tour? When the man making his final bow is Lleyton Hewitt. The former Wimbledon champion is playing his final grass-court season this summer, having decided to retire after playing in his 20th successive Australian Open next January, but the competitive fire still burns so fiercely that he will not be allowing himself to wallow in nostalgia over the next month.
“I’m still a pretty tough competitor, so you’re still trying to get the best out of yourself, and it feels the same as any year,” Hewitt insisted at Queen’s Club yesterday before heading out for a practice session in preparation for next week’s Aegon Championships. “I’ll still be going out there and trying to do all the small things, and get adjusted to the grass again over here and trying to play as many practice sets as possible.
“When you’re out on the court, maybe it might feel a little different, but I’ve got to try to block it out as much as possible, too. I think once your mind starts focusing on other things, it’s going to be pretty tough to play your best tennis.”
It is more than a decade since Hewitt played his best tennis – he won his two Grand Slam titles in New York in 2001 and at Wimbledon in 2002 – but the 34-year-old Australian has always remained a fighter. He was good enough to win two titles in 2014, which was the first time he had won more than one in a year since 2004.
Injuries, nevertheless, have taken their toll to the extent that Hewitt had won 23 of his 30 career titles by the end of 2004. He has had five operations in the last seven years, including radical surgery on his left foot. After years of pushing his foot down into the court as part of his service action, his chronically arthritic big toe had become badly misshapen and painful. The solution was to have a metal plate screwed into the toe, locking it into a permanent position.
Was he concerned that he might pay a price for his tennis injuries in later life? “No, it’s not something that’s worried me,” Hewitt said. “I’ve tried to get the most out of myself. I’ve said in the last few years that the toughest surgery for me to come back from was the toe surgery, which was the last one that I had. Most people didn’t think it was possible.
“In that way I’ve been proud that I can still get out there to compete against these guys. So it’s not something that I’d ever regret having done. I’d been told that I was going to need that surgery after tennis, regardless of whether I kept playing or not. It just got to a stage where I couldn’t play with the pain and injections any more.”
Winning Wimbledon remains Hewitt’s most treasured tennis memory, while Queen’s, where he won the last of his four titles in 2006, is his favourite tournament outside the Grand Slam events. His wife, children and parents will all be supporting him here next week.
British crowds can give Australian sportsmen a hard time but Hewitt has always been a favourite here. “Maybe it’s the never-say-die attitude,” he said. “I keep fighting out there. I try to use the crowd as much as possible. I take that positive energy from them. I have had a lot of success here as well, which probably helped.”
Hewitt remained popular despite winning all four of his grass-court meetings with Tim Henman, including the 2002 final at Queen’s Club and their subsequent Wimbledon semi-final. “I could feel he was a bit on edge [in the Queen’s final],” Hewitt said. “That was pretty big, as it turned out, for our semi-final at Wimbledon two weeks later. It was probably one of Henners’ best chances of going through to the final and probably winning Wimbledon.”
This year Hewitt will be playing doubles at Queen’s and Wimbledon with Thanasi Kokkinakis, arguably the best of an exciting generation of young Australians. Hewitt has gone out of his way to help Kokkinakis, Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic and is excited by their progress.
“The most pleasing thing is that [Kokkinakis and Kyrgios] play well under pressure in the big matches,” Hewitt said. “They thrive in that environment. Tomic is exactly the same. There’s another kid, Omar Jasika, coming through, and those guys are going to be the next group that can push for majors and get in the top 10.”
How good can Kyrgios and Kokkinakis be? “Nick’s obviously got so much firepower that he can blow guys off the court. Whether he can do that for seven best-of-five matches over two weeks, that’s a big ask. Thanasi has made big inroads the last year. Even just playing on grass the last six months I’ve seen massive improvements in his game. It’s hard to put a number on it but they’re going to be competing for Slams, for sure.”
Hewitt is expected to become Australia’s Davis Cup captain before long, but for the moment he is still a key member of the playing personnel. He could even be back here playing in the semi-finals in September if Britain beat France and Australia overcome Kazakhstan in the quarter-finals, the weekend after Wimbledon finishes.
“It’s exciting because we are a genuine threat now,” Hewitt said. “We have a chance to win the Davis Cup. It was kind of a dream to even possibly have an opportunity, but we have an outside chance to win it this year with the team and depth we have. We have guys who can play matches over five sets.”
Nevertheless, Hewitt says that both Kyrgios and Kokkinakis have work to do before they can match Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic physically. Hewitt, who at No 112 in the world rankings needs wild cards at both Queen’s and Wimbledon, practised with Murray on Thursday and likes the Scot’s chances on grass this summer.
“I think Andy will be tough to beat,” he said. “His second serve is probably the one area that good returners like Novak and the bigger hitters can probably get a hold of, but he defends it so well. He lets them come at him and on the second serve he takes his chances. I think he will be up there.”