London, June 29 (IANS) Lleyton Hewitt, Australia’s flagbearer in world tennis for almost two decades, makes what could be his final appearance at the All England Club on Monday following his announcement that this year’s Wimbledon tournament would be his last.
Fittingly, the 34-year-old’s first-round match pits him against another veteran in Finland’s Jarkko Nieminen, who is younger than Hewitt by just a few months. But he is yet to beat Hewitt in five matches, a match-up which gives the plucky Australian some hope that his Wimbledon farewell might stretch out to a fitting length.
But if he does manage to overcome the Fin, Hewitt is scheduled to play top seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic in the second round, a challenge insurmountable to all but the best on their day.
Hewitt has been Australian tennis’ stalwart and poster boy since arriving on the international tennis scene in the late 1990s as a ferocious competitor who made up for his lack of power with an indomitable will to win.
Winner of a Major title at Wimbledon in 2002 as the world No.1, Hewitt cemented himself as one of the modern greats following his maiden Major title at the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows the year before.
But after 16 hard-fought campaigns on the lush grass of SW19, he indicated his 17th would be his last — an announcement which prompted colleagues around the world to shower the Australian veteran with praise.
Swiss maestro and long-time rival Roger Federer labeled Hewitt a trailblazer for modern baseline tennis, particularly on grass. Federer, who currently holds the record for grass court titles among current players, called the man second on that list, Hewitt, an inspiration.
“For him to win Wimbledon and have the career he had on the grass is quite unbelievable,” Federer said this week.
“It showed an entire generation how it can be done.”
Federer said Hewitt turned grass court tennis from a serve-and- volley haven into a baseliner’s game, an influence which Federer still marvels to this day.
Federer said any match against the Australian was always fraught with danger.
“I’ve always enjoyed watching him. Playing against him has been cool at times, not always so much fun,” he said.
“A feisty competitor, one of the toughest I always had to play against.”
British number one Andy Murray also paid tribute. He said Hewitt’s competitiveness and drive was an admirable trait in a tennis player.
“Well, he was obviously a great player,” he said after winning his fourth Queen’s Club title last week — the same number as Hewitt.
“I think he finished No. 1 in two consecutive years which is obviously an extremely difficult thing to do.
“He will be remembered as being just a fantastic competitor. He hated to lose.”
Hewitt’s final Grand Slam will be his home tournament in Melbourne in 2016. But the place of one of his two Grand Slam wins holds a special place in his heart and on his favoured surface, it could be guaranteed that Hewitt will leave nothing to chance.
He leaves a legacy which inspired a generation of young, competitive Australian tennis players, and with up-and-comers Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis all climbing the rankings, there might be no better time for Hewitt to hand over the reins.
Hewitt will be hoping for a second round appearance, but having not beaten Serbia’s Novak Djokovic since 2006, it’s a mighty ask.
Though it would be a glittering end to his Grand Slam career should he defeat the world No. 1 with one last characteristic, hard-fought tussle, Hewitt faces a great challenge to progress in the tournament.