There’s not much glory in being sandpaper – just ask Lleyton Hewitt.
Winning through a series of tiny abrasions and irritations doesn’t make for viral hot shot GIFs or highlight reels. Where Roger Federer carves up his opposition like a shiny cutlass, and Novak Djokovic dominates with his suffocating chloroform game,
Hewitt has taken the harder path of wearing down his opposition with paper-thin weapons. There he was again on Monday, trying to grind down Jarkko Nieminen, just to make the second round of Wimbledon, 13 years after he won the title as the number one seed.
Hewitt’s losing battle on Court No. 2 displayed the weaknesses that made it easy for the Big Four to overtake him more than a decade ago. The lack of powerful groundstrokes and the serve that faltered too often showed why he has only made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam once since the 2007 Australian Open. But his tenacity in fighting off three match points – one with a diving volley, is what has kept him battling at the edges of the sport, often literally on the humblest outside courts, more than a decade removed from his biggest successes.
It’s hard to imagine the titans of the ATP being willing to recede to the margins as the next generation surpasses them. Roger Federer would sooner drive the carpool than grind out matches in front of standing room crowds at Court 16 somewhere. For all his humility, one suspects that Rafael Nadal might become more devoted to golf or fishing, if he was cast in the role of tenacious veteran available to the grounds pass faithful.
Yet, tournament after tournament, there was Lleyton, with the same “Come On” and fist pumping that we saw on TV, but often feet away from crowds that came to appreciate his thorny refusal to submit.
Not that Lleyton has always been easy to appreciate, mind you. I was there for Lleyton’s worst moment – where he, en route to his 2001 U.S. Open title, intimated that an African American linesman was biased in favor of opponent James Blake and requested that the linesman be removed. Then, he was an abrasive young hotshot whose fist-pumping and cheering for himself was an unwelcome novelty, rather than the customary response to every point it has become these days. His outburst in the Blake match won him no fans, judging from the audible growl that seemed to emanate from the crowd that day. Dethroning a suddenly fallible Pete Sampras to win the U.S. Open title a week later endeared him to few in the understandably biased American crowd.
For Hewitt, public affection has come more in losing than in winning. Not that it’s mattered to him all that much – Hewitt is one of the rare players remaining today who would rather be a winning villain than a losing favorite. In a world where Federer basks in universal fan support, and Djokovic is visibly hurt when the crowd goes against him, it’s hard to conjure up a star like Hewitt, whose competitive fire devastated any attempt at image control or brand management that dared cross its path.
Time and injury have brought humility and patience where there was once anger and, too often, bile. The tenacity that used to wear down his opponents wore down his hips, his toes, and everything in between. But, he fought through the surgeries, rehabs, setbacks, and comebacks, happy just to compete, even where he had little hope of reclaiming even a quarter of his past glory.
He came to recognize his place on the tour, as a wily veteran and admired gladiator. One even suspects that he learned to appreciate his good fortune in collecting his Grand Slam trophies before the Big Four juggernaut started gobbling them all. His smaller triumphs – beating Federer in finals in Brisbane and Halle over the last few years, taking a set off of Djokovic at the Olympics – became sweeter, and he made himself more available as a mentor, planning to lead the Australian Davis Cup team upon his retirement.
Indeed, much of the narrative of Hewitt’s retirement, today from Wimbledon, and through his last match at the Australian Open next January, will be about the change in the man from hellion to statesman.
Yet, he’s always been sandpaper. He never stopped being the seemingly flimsy tool that tried to erode the edges of the tougher material around him, even if unable to break it down. He never stopped loving the battle and the challenge of bigger, stronger opponents, and he never stopped fighting, even when winning was more and more unlikely.
In that struggle, he has become the everyman to the dominant supermen of the tour. As much as we admire the extraordinary feats of today’s champions, the gritty guy from Adelaide might be a little more like us than we thought. Match by match, it became easier to like the guy, and harder to grumble about his fight.
Lleyton Hewitt’s last appearance at Wimbledon was a victory after all – wearing down his toughest opponent – the public – and leaving the stage as a beloved star after all.