We have been witnessing a fascinating clay court campaign in a multitude of ways over the last several weeks. The first major development was when Stefanos Tsitsipas secured his initial Masters 1000 crown in Monte Carlo by toppling Andrey Rublev in the final after Rublev had stunned eleven time victor Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. Novak Djokovic suffered an even more astounding upset loss there to Great Britain’s Dan Evans in the round of 16.
Then Nadal was victorious in Barcelona, capturing that highly regarded ATP 500 title for the twelfth time, rescuing himself from match point down in the final against an inspired and somewhat unlucky Tsitsipas, prevailing in three hours and thirty eight minutes of suspenseful and riveting tennis. That same week in Belgrade, Djokovic was beaten in the semifinals of an ATP 250 event in his homeland, narrowly falling short against the surging Aslan Karatsev. The following day, the top ranked Italian Matteo Berrettini ousted Karatsev in a final set tie-break to claim that title.
And soon the stage was set for the second clay court Masters 1000 tournament of the season this past week in Madrid. Once more, there were a good many surprises over the course of the week. For starters, 2019 champion Djokovic chose not to play. Tsitsipas was knocked out in the round of 16 by a perspicacious Casper Ruud. Overflowing with confidence coming into the tournament, Tsitsipas never found a way to contain Ruud from the backcourt. He seemed constantly ill at ease coping with the Norwegian’s heavy and penetrating topspin forehand. Ruud kept Tsitsipas at bay with his high bounding shots off that side.
That match turned late in a first set settled in a tie-break. That crucial sequence was locked at 3-3 when Tsitsipas punched a backhand volley long to give Ruud the mini-break. Ruud took control off the forehand to stretch his lead to 6-3, and then came through to take the tie-break 7-4 when Tsitsipas missed a forehand inside-in wide.
The second set went to 3-3, but Tsitsipas was broken at 15 when he double faulted and pressed off the forehand, netting his down the line shot off that side. Ruud was too good with the lead, holding at 30 for 5-3. Two games later, Ruud served for the match, meeting that challenge with temerity, holding at the cost of only one point. Victory was salvaged deservedly by Ruud 7-6 (4), 6-4, who connected with nearly 80% of his first serves and largely set the tempo in this meeting. He was so good that Tsitsipas was frequently discombobulated, pressing and beating himself down the stretch.
The Norwegian eventually lost in the semifinals 6-4, 6-4 to a top of the line Berrettini after ousting Alexander Bublik 7-5 6-1 in the quarterfinals. He is beginning to make a habit out of showing up for the latter stages of Masters 1000 tournaments. He lost to Djokovic last year in the semifinals of Rome and a few weeks ago advanced to the same round in Monte Carlo. Ruud has the game to keep advancing deep into these draws at elite events.
Meanwhile, Daniil Medvedev returned to the ATP Tour after being sidelined by Covid-19. He won a match but was then taken apart by the seasoned Christian Garin of Chile, a seasoned clay court player who was not intimidated in the least by taking on the world No. 2. He came through 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-1 for perhaps the biggest win of his career. Medvedev looked out of sorts and ill at ease through most of this encounter. The 25-year-old Russian was candid both before and after losing about his inner confusion concerning how to make his game work effectively on the dirt. The 2019 U.S. Open finalist and 2021 Australian Open runner-up has never won a match at Roland Garros in four appearances. He will have his work cut out for him to recover his finest tennis this week in Rome.
Clearly the most pivotal moment of the week in Madrid was the quarterfinal departure of Nadal at the hands of Zverev. The Spaniard looked composed and secure on his way to the appointment with Zverev. He was outmaneuvering his tall adversary in the early stages of this contest, building a 4-2 lead, putting himself two holds away from taking the first set. He reached 30-30 in the seventh game but Zverev stung him severely with a pair of excellent passing shots to get the break back.
Down break point in the following game, Zverev gamely held on to reach 4-4. Nadal had a game point for 5-4 but he could not cash in on it. At deuce, he double faulted, and then he netted a backhand passing shot. Zverev was rolling now. Serving for the first set, he started with a double fault but swept four points in a row from there with a flourish, lacing a backhand winner crosscourt, coming to the net to pressure Nadal on the next two points, and then acing the Spaniard down the T.
Zverev had captured four consecutive games and he never looked back as a desultory Nadal could not recover his form. Zverev played beautifully and dictated his share of the points. His serve was magnificent as Nadal only broke him once. For his part, Nadal was far too negative once he dropped the opening set. He fell behind 4-2 in the second set and held on there from 15-40, but Zverev maintained the upper hand to win 6-4, 6-4, stopping Nadal for the third time in a row.
Nadal, Tsitsipas and Medvedev were not the only major casualties in the tricky high altitude conditions on the Madrid clay. Dominic Thiem— absent in Monte Carlo and Barcelona and moving through something of a mid-career identity crisis—managed to fend off the sport’s most fearsome server in John Isner. Isner had cut down both Roberto Bautista Agut and Rublev in final set tie-breaks and he nearly halted Thiem. But when the industrious Austrian erased four break points against him at 2-2 in the second set, he altered the course of the match and Isner’s soaring confidence was soon diminished. Thiem rallied admirably for a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph and a place in the semifinals.
That was not a bad start to his 2021 clay court campaign. But he looked rusty and uncomfortable against Zverev in the semifinals, and the 6-3, 6-4 scoreline is somewhat misleading. It was not as close as that. Zverev was far more self assured and consistent amidst the swirling winds and he had another very good serving day. He never allowed Thiem to settle into any kind of rhythm from the backcourt. The win for Zverev was all the more gratifying considering that it was their first clash since meeting in the U.S. Open final. Zverev led two sets to love in that match and later served for the match in the fifth set, but he faltered in the crunch and endured a nightmarish setback.
Not so in Madrid. On the clay he was often masterful, driving his two-handed backhand deep down the line for winners, opening up the court with his forehand, and approaching the net at all the right times to keep Thiem unsettled. He demonstrated in this match— as he had against Nadal—that he is as formidable on clay as he is on any other surface. Zverev was a worthy winner of the Madrid Masters 1000 tournament in 2018 after winning Rome the previous year. He also won the Canada hard court Masters 1000 tournament at Montreal in 2017. Those string of triumphs are abundant proof that he can win big tournaments as well as perform with comparable excellence on all kinds of courts.
For Zverev, the final this time around was a chance to reaffirm his greatness while Berrettini was searching for a breakthrough and a validation of all the progress he has made since he climbed into the world’s top ten in 2019 and reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open. He had never reached a Masters 1000 final before, but this was a chance to get on the board and prove that he belongs among the sport’s elite.
Berrettini acquitted himself well in a hard fought opening set. He gained the first break of the match for 4-3 but Zverev retaliated immediately to make it 4-4. They settled that set in one of the most bizarre tie-breaks of the entire tennis season. Benefitting from a stream of unforced errors from Zverev, Berrettini built a commanding 5-0 lead, with two service points to follow. But the Italian tightened up, losing the next four points, giving away three with unjustifiable mistakes.
Yet Berrettini unleashed a forehand inside in winner for a 6-4 lead, with two set points at his disposal. Once more with the lead, Berrettini faltered and Zverev moved in front on a run of three consecutive points, serving an ace for a 7-6 lead and a set point. But Berrettini produced a pair of fine first serves and took control off his explosive forehand to regain the lead at 8-7. Although Zverev made it back to 8-8, he foolishly gambled by going for a huge second serve ace down the T, double faulting that point away. Now Berrettini secured the set on his fourth set point with a service winner to the backhand.
The charismatic Italian had survived a considerable ordeal to salvage a set that almost got away, but Zverev refused to be preoccupied by an agonizingly narrow failure. Across the last two sets he was the decidedly better player. At 4-4 in the second set, Berrettini was burned by allowing Zverev to read his drop shot with ease. The German scampered forward and chipped a backhand winner out of reach for 15-40. Shaken, Berrettini double faulted and Zverev had the critical break for 5-4. Zverev served it out in the tenth game to make it one set all.
The Italian had one more opportunity early in the third set when he had a break point for 3-1 after Zverev went for another second serve ace down the T and double faulted. But Zverev saved the break point with a massive combination of a big serve that set up a forehand winner behind Berrettini. He held on for 2-2 and never looked back, breaking in the fifth and ninth games to record a 6-7 (8)), 6-4, 6-3 victory for his fourth Masters 1000 singles title. The only active players who have won more are Djokovic (36), Nadal (35), Roger Federer (28) and Andy Murray (14).
Most importantly at the moment, this was Zverev’s third Masters 1000 crown on clay. That puts him in very good stead for Roland Garros. Zverev now must be considered a top five candidate to take the world’s premier clay court title. Nadal remains the clear favorite, followed by Djokovic, Thiem and Tsitsipas. But Zverev is now right up there on the clay with the Serbian, Austrian and Greek stylists. Winning this title could not be more timely or uplifting for the tall German performer, with or without a strong showing in Rome this week.
Zverev coming through so convincingly in a tournament of such prestige only augers well for him in Paris. But what about Rome? Who is best positioned to be victorious this week on the Italian red clay?
Those are not easy questions to answer. One would think that Nadal will be very eager to make amends. He has won only one of his three clay court tournaments this year en route to Roland Garros, losing a pair of quarterfinals. Even his lone triumph in Barcelona was a narrow escape as the Spaniard saved a match point in the final set before holding back Tsitsipas in a rousing title round showdown.
This week in Rome, Nadal’s draw is not easy by any means. Seeded second behind Djokovic, he may have to face the hard working and wildly ambitious Jannik Sinner after a first round bye. He could meet Zverev for the second week in a row in the quarters. Zverev would have nothing to lose after eclipsing Rafa in Madrid, and the Spaniard could be both eager and uneasy if he does indeed face Zverev again.
If Nadal survives a potential confrontation against Zverev, he will be very likely to reach the final. No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev is on his half of the draw. I don’t believe Medvedev will make it to the penultimate round, but perhaps Diego Schwartzman will break out of a recent slump of sorts and try to reprise his winning form against Nadal last year at the same tournament.
There is no doubt Nadal could use a boost going into Roland Garros. He has yet to strike peak form these last bunch of weeks on his favorite surface, but claiming a tenth title in Rome would do much to improve his state of mind and carry him into Roland Garros feeling more like himself.
And yet, as much as Nadal wants to raise the level of his game this week in Italy, Novak Djokovic is even more in need of a morale boosting tournament. Djokovic, of course, commenced 2021 in style with his ninth Australian Open title run and an 18th Grand Slam title victory. But in his two clay court appearances this spring, he has not found a winning formula.
In Monte Carlo, playing Dan Evans for the first time, Djokovic was way off his game in a straight set defeat. He then suffered the disappointing loss to Karatsev in Serbia. Those subpar results are precisely why Djokovic must be determined to win his sixth Italian Open this week—or at least reach the final. That will be no facile feat. He could meet Evans again in his opening match if the British competitor beats Taylor Fritz in the first round.
The seedings project that Djokovic will meet the No. 5 seed Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals (if Tsitsipas can defeat Berrettini), and that one could be a blockbuster. Also on his half of the draw for a potential semifinal encounter are Thiem and Rublev, who should clash in the quarterfinals. My feeling is that Rome is even more important for Djokovic than it is for Nadal; a great week in Italy could propel the estimable Serbian into Paris and make him believe in his chances to win Roland Garros for the second time, but an early round loss would be a serious setback.
So there you have it. I have a hunch that we are in for some more surprises this week. Rublev might explode and take his first Masters 1000 title. Zverev will be ascendant after his heroics in Madrid. He will be loose, confident and happy to be sparkling in the springtime. Perhaps it is asking too much of him to win back to back Masters 1000s in successive weeks, but perhaps not. I would also not be stunned to see Tsitsipas step back up after his loss in Madrid and put it all together again.
To be sure, Nadal must be the favorite this week. He can be exceedingly dangerous when he is disconcerted with his game, and that could well drive him to dizzying heights in Rome. I feel the same way about Djokovic. He has too much pride and professionalism to accept anything less than a stellar showing this week as either the champion or the runner-up.
But what makes it all so intriguing at the moment is the unpredictability of the last three Masters 1000 tournaments. Hubert Hurkacz struck down Sinner in the Miami final; neither player had ever been in a Masters 1000 final before. Tsitsipas took his first of these elite prizes in Monte Carlo by toppling Rublev in the final. And then Zverev triumphed deservedly in Madrid, coming from behind to oust Berrettini, who was appearing in his first final at one of these elite events.
So take nothing for granted. Look for Nadal to be almost defiant. Expect Djokovic to be as motivated as he has been in a long time. Be anticipating as well that one of the emerging superstars of men’s tennis will be in the thick of the proceedings and unafraid to confront the icons of the game at the second most important clay court tournament in all of tennis.
Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
US Open: Shelby Rogers Delivers; Serena Still A Threat To Win 24th Major
After all of these years of playing in the U.S. Open, Shelby Rogers is finally a seeded player.
The Charleston, S.C., native has been playing America’s premier tennis event almost continuously since her debut in New York in 2010. She’ll turn 30 years old in a few weeks and has worked her way up the rankings to 31st in the world.
That’s a big achievement from the little girl who hung on the fences more than two decades ago to watch her older sister Sabra play high school matches that eventually led to an Al-American career for Sabra at Emory University. Sabra became a psychologist and, of course, is one of Shelby’s biggest fans.
LOOK OUT FOR ROGERS?
Rogers took the direct route. She didn’t play high school tennis, but left the classroom before high school to train in tennis, study online and play the junior circuit. She turned pro in 2009 at age 16.
Monday evening at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, It took Rogers awhile to start living up to her ranking. But once she turned the corner after dropping the first set in nine games, Shelby started looking like a seasoned top 30 player.
Rogers sort of blew The Netherlands’ slim Arantxa Rus away, taking a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in the opening round of the U.S. Open. Rogers especially played the deciding 28th game of the match like the veteran pro she is. She hit one long forehand and netted one ball in that game, but otherwise she rode her big serve to victory in the clinching game. At 40-30, she delivered a huge first serve down the middle that Rus couldn’t put into play.
WOMEN’S RACE TO TOP PRIZE WIDE OPEN
The way things are on the women’s tour these days, with no true leader while once-amazing top-ranked Iga Swiatek tries to regain her dominance, anything is possible.
Yes, even finally a 24th Grand Slam title for Serena Williams.
But this is about Shelby Rogers. She is playing the best tennis of her career nearly a decade and a half after her life as a professional tennis player started.
With any kind of luck, Rogers could leave New York ranked among the top 25 players in the world, or maybe higher if she continues to serve and play the kind of big-ball tennis she played in the last 19 games Monday night.
WHO’S NEXT IN LINE
So, what’s after Swiatek, who started the year on fire with a long unbeaten streak that went through the French Open and rewarded her with as many points as the confined totals of the Nos. 2 and 3 players. Of course, Ashleigh Barty’s retirement after winning the Australian Open opened the door for Swiatek’s rise to the top.
And then Wimbledon’s grass took care of Swiatek.
Nos. 2-5 Anett Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari, Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur are all outstanding players, but none currently fit in the great column. They appear to be waiting in line for Swiatek or another Barty-like player to step forward to rule the women’s tour.
WHAT ABOUT UKRAINE’S DARIA!
Then there are almost totally unknown players such as Ukraine’s Daria Snigur. I hadn’t given Snigur much chance at all on the pro tour until her shocking U.S. Open first-round victory over multi-Grand Slam tournament winner and seventh-ranked Simona Halep.
The last time I had thought about Snigur was when she upended Charleston’s Emma Navarro in the Junior Wimbledon semifinals and then won the Junior Grand Slam tournament.
At Junior Wimbledon in 2019, I thought Navarro, who also is now on the WTA Tour and is currently ranked 145th in the world, would roll past Snigur the way she had in the 2019 Junior French Open quarterfinals. But Snigur is so deceptive with her ground strokes that strike like lightning, she dominated Navarro at that Junior Wimbledon.
So, maybe the currently 124th-ranked Snigur may be ready to make a mark on the tour after scoring her first tour victory by defeating Halep.
NO NOVAK, BUT RAFA IS THERE
Without Novak Djokovic, the men are about as unpredictable as the women, with the exception of one player. Rafa Nadal, of course, entered this U.S. Open, with a perfect 19-0 record this year in Grand Slams.
Daniil Medvedev is the defending champion at the U.S. Open, but even though he is ranked No. 1 in the world, it’s a long road to the final for the Russian. Medvedev hasn’t always been predictable.
And already, No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas has been eliminated by a complete unknown, Daniel Elahi Galan.
Wow! The Greek star probably was about as much of a favorite as Medvedev.
And poor Dominic Thiem was cast on an outside court. And he lost. Just a couple of years ago, Thiem was winning the U.S. Open.
My top five picks in order would be: Nadal, Jannik Sinner, Nick Kyrgios, Medvedev and Andy Murray. Yes, Andy looks pretty fit.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Does WTA Need A Top Rivalry To Drive The Sport?
Iga Swiatek is the WTA’s dominant world number one but does she need a rival in order to drive the sport to new heights.
The WTA has a dominant world number one and a variety of talented players on the tour but the one thing it’s lacking at the moment is a top rivalry.
First of all it was supposed to be Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka, then Ash Barty and Osaka and also Barty and Iga Swiatek.
However none of these match-ups created a top rivalry over a long period to generate an overwhelming amount of interest.
After Barty’s shock retirement, many people were left disappointed at the fact that her and current dominant world number one Iga Swiatek could not compete for the sport’s biggest titles in a fierce rivalry.
Now Swiatek sits at the top of the WTA rankings with almost a 4,000 point lead at the top. The rest of the field are very talented and that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the WTA’s appeal.
But the one thing the women’s game lacks is a top rivalry to generate a hype that the ATP clearly has right now.
As Mark Petchey said it’s an issue that needs solving soon as every sport has one, “Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” Petchey was quoted as saying by Tennis365.
“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It’s a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. That is the one thing that is missing from the women’s tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.
“That’s why I say I’m sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could’ve developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there. Going into every major saying that you’re not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit.
“You can’t keep saying ‘oh, anyone can win it’. Because you’re just not tagging anybody… you’re not setting the scene for something amazing that’s going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major. They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that’s what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”
It’s hard to argue with those points of view from Petchey as rivalries are what are talked about for decades after players have retired.
It will be interesting to see whether Swiatek will continue to dominate the rest of the field or whether someone can build a rivalry with the Pole heading into the remainder of the season.
The next big WTA event of the year will take place at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on the week of the eighth of August.
Steve Flink On Lleyton Hewitt’s Induction Into The International Tennis Hall Of Fame
Five years after being inducted himself for his services to tennis, the veteran commentator reflects on Hewitt’s achievements as a player.
Having attended every International Tennis Hall of Fame induction ceremony since 1995 in Newport, Rhode Island, I have grown familiar with and fond of the surroundings in that idyllic setting. It is less a three hour drive from my home in Westchester, New York. It is a place made for summertime activities, and it is where the first U.S. National Championships were held in 1881. In 2017, I was fortunate to be inducted as a contributor at the Hall of Fame.
Every single Hall of Fame ceremony is staged with a deep and enduring reverence for the sport and the greatest players who have ever stepped on a court. This year was no exception to that rule. Lleyton Hewitt became the 34th player from Australia to be inducted at Newport. This indefatigable competitor was elected to the class of 2021, but with travel in and out of his country complicated by Covid, Hewitt was unable to make the trip a year ago to join his classmates (the late) Dennis Van Der Meer and the “Original Nine” of women’s tennis which included Billie Jean King.
It was sad that Hewiitt could not make it to Newport a year ago. But no one who appeared on the ballot for 2022 was elected. That was unprecedented. And so the fans and the tennis community were grateful that Hewitt could make the journey from the land “Down Under” this year to accept the ultimate honor of his career at the age of 41. Being there for all of the festivities— including a dinner the evening before and a brunch on induction day— it was strikingly apparent to me that Hewitt fully recognized the magnitude of the accolade and took nothing for granted. He relished the chance to take his place among the elite performers in the history of his profession, and conducted himself with unmistakable grace and dignity.
Hewitt celebrated a multitude of soaring achievements in his time as a top flight player, winning the US. Open in 2001, taking the Wimbledon title in 2002, leading Australia to victory in the Davis Cup twice. He concluded 2001 and 2002 as the No, 1 ranked player in the world and competed in at least one major tournament for twenty consecutive years (1997-2016). He secured 30 career titles in singles, but was also a first rate doubles player, capturing the U.S. Open alongside Max Mirnyi in 2000. Hewitt must be regarded as one of the most resilient competitors of his or any era. His courage and unflagging commitment to the game were commendable.
Presenting Hewitt to the fans in Newport—and those sitting in their living rooms watching on television at home— were, fittingly, John Newcombe and Tony Roche. These two Hall of Famers formed one of the greatest doubles partnerships of all time, winning Wimbledon five times. Roche won one major (Roland Garros in 1966) in singles while Newcombe garnered seven Grand Slam singles titles, securing three crowns at Wimbledon in 1967, 1970 and 1971.
But I digress. Newcombe and Roche were seen on video saluting Hewitt because they played critical roles in the evolution of this inimitable individual as a player. Newcombe was Hewitt’s Davis Cup captain, while Roche was his coach in the 1990’s and beyond. They contributed mightily to Hewitt’s technical and tactical understanding of the game. Moreover, both men were loyal and unwavering friends of Hewitt’s. Roche even made an unannounced trip to Newport to be there in person for Hewitt, a magnanimous gesture that was very well received.
Roche recalled his introduction to a 12 or 13 year old Hewitt at a charity event in Adelaide. Newcombe recollected Hewitt coming to his tennis academy in Texas. Hewitt was 14 and asked Newcombe if he could interview him. Newcombe agreed to do it immediately, and the precocious kid had 25 questions prepared for one of his heroes. As Newcombe reflected, “That [gave me] a good idea of how organized he was.”
Both Newcombe and Roche vividly remembered Hewitt’s spectacular Davis Cup debut at the Longwood Cricket Club outside Boston. Hewitt was replacing an injured Mark Philippoussis in the Australian lineup. Hewitt upended Todd Martin on the opening day and led the way for the Australians to topple the U.S. in the quarterfinals during the celebratory centenary year for Davis Cup in 1999. Later that season, he took apart Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov as Australia defeated Russia in the semifinals, and then the Aussies took the Cup by ousting France in the final.
Four years later, Hewitt was instrumental again as the Australians were Davis Cup victors once more, defeating Spain in the final at home in Melbourne. His Davis Cup record was astounding. Altogether, Hewitt won 59 of 80 matches playing for his country, prevailing in 42 of 56 singles matches and 17 of 24 doubles contests.
Roche summed up Hewitt’s competitive days succinctly, saying, “What a remarkable career Lleyton has had. He was one of the youngest players to ever win an ATP Tour event in his hometown of Adelaide[ early in 1998 when he was still 16] He’s still the youngest ever No. 1 ATP ranked player at the end of the year [2001, when he was 20]. He won two year-end Masters tournaments, two Grand Slams, and his Davis Cup record is the greatest in Australian history. He’s played more ties and won more matches than any other Australian, and we’ve had some great Davis Cup players.”
That, of course, was a deliberate understatement. Among the many standouts Roche was referring to are Frank Sedgman, Roy Emerson, Neale Fraser, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and, of course, himself and Newcombe. In any case, Newcombe and Roche covered the spectrum of Hewitt’s career and got to the essence of Hewitt as a human being impeccably in their tribute. Newcombe concluded with these poignant words: “Yeah, we’re proud, Lleyton, to have known you and to be able to spend some time with you. It was an honor for us.”
Now it was time for Hewitt to step up to the microphone, and he was not at a loss for words. In nearly all International Tennis Hall of Fame ceremonies, honorees largely try to keep their remarks relatively short because there are generally multiple Hall of Famers in any given year. But Hewitt had the luxury when he took his turn up at the rostrum to speak expansively without worrying about going on too long. He could relax and convey his thoughts deliberately in front of an attentive and appreciative audience early on the evening of July 16.
Hewitt delivered his impressive speech passionately, authentically and self-deprecatingly. He was much more interested in saluting those who had played leading roles in allowing him to realize his largest dreams than he was in patting himself on the back. He thanked the Hall of Fame for the honor, paid tribute to his 2021 classmates Dennis Van Der Meer and the Original Nine, and then became philosophical as he reflected on his exalted status.
He said, “The Hall of Fame seemed like something that was so far away from me ever being a part of. It was never something I thought about as a player, and it was always, I thought, for the people who were my idols growing up and the absolute legends of the sport…. To think that it all began for me on junior courts in the middle of nowhere in Adelaide in Australia, with no one watching, no TV cameras, and then to make the full tennis journey and now be coming into the Hall of Fame [is very special].”
Following up on that theme and displaying his gratitude for competing for so long against formidable rivals from different eras, Hewitt pointed out, “I feel fortunate that I was able to play across different generations, that I was able to be on the same court as my heroes Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, and then go on and compete against three of the greatest tennis players our sport has ever seen in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.”
What Hewitt left out was that he celebrated some immensely rewarding moments against all five of the aforementioned players. He finished with a 5-4 career winning record against the redoubtable Sampras, including a 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, 6-1 triumph in his first major final at the 2001 U.S Open. Hewitt was 4-4 against Agassi. He was 9-18 against Federer after taking seven of their first nine duels, but it must be mentioned that Hewitt stunned the Swiss Maestro in their last appointment ever at Brisbane in 2014. Although he lost seven of eleven duels versus Nadal, Hewitt toppled the Spaniard at the 2004 and 2005 Australian Opens. Even then, Nadal was awfully tough to beat. Finally, Hewitt was 1-6 against Djokovic, but achieved his lone victory over the Serbian at the 2006 U.S. Open.
Be that as it may, Hewitt next spoke of his affection for Newport, a place he performed many times. As he recounted, “You feel the history and tradition of tennis as soon as you walk in here. I first came here as a 17-year-old playing the Newport event back in ‘98…. Later on in my career I came here quite a few times and thoroughly enjoyed it. I came close a couple of times, losing in the final in 2012 an 2013. That just made me more desperate as the kind of person I was. I wanted to get my name on the trophy here and actually win where the Hall of Fame [tournament] was played. I was able to do that in 2014. It was so perfect. It ended up being the last title of my career, which I look back on and I’m so proud of. Believe it or not, in my 20-odd-year career I had never won the singles and doubles at the same tournament ever, but that particular week in 2014 in Newport I did it.”
Hewitt was flowing freely now, relieving his entire life in many ways, thoroughly enjoying the chance to reminisce. He retraced his youth playing AFL (Australian Football League), the highest level of Australian Rules football. As he mentioned, “It’s a tough, true Australian team sport. My Dad, my grandfather and my uncle all played it professionally. That was my dream to one day follow in their footsteps.” He spoke of his transition to tennis as a kid and the sound advise he received from his earliest coach, Peter Smith, who started working with Hewitt when the youngster was six.
Naturally, Hewitt soon sent some praise in the direction of Darren Cahill, the coach who boosted him immeasurably during the heart of his career. As Hewitt explained, “I had a few coaches during my career and I want to thank all those tour coaches, but especially Darren Cahill…. It wouldn’t be until the end of 98’ that I started traveling with Darren as my tour coach. We had plenty of things in common, but the biggest thing was our family’s connection with AFL football, even though we absolutely hated each other’s AFL teams. But it was really special that I could win my first Grand Slam in singles and doubles and get to world No. 1 with my coach from my hometown of Adelaide, Darren Cahill.”
Hewitt was leaving no stone unturned as he reflected on years gone by, milestones met and people who inspired him along the way. One of them was Sweden’s dynamic Mats Wilander. As Hewitt said, “ I became known for my ‘c’mons’ on the court and my celebration sign. Not many people knew, but Mats was the one that started it. It was called the ‘vicht’. He did it from Sweden.”
After lauding Davis Cup captains John Fitzgerald and Pat Rafter, he then offered some well deserved praise for Newcombe, who was so inspirational in a multitude of ways. “Thanks, Newk, for all of your support over the years, mate. I loved nothing more than going into battle with you.”
And it would not be long before Hewitt would let it be known just how critical a role Roche had played in his life.
“I wouldn’t be receiving this honor if it wasn’t for this bloke,“ he said of Roche. “Rochey, mate, you mean so much to me that you made the effort to make the long trek over from Australia to be here with me today. I’ve been so fortunate to have you as a coach, mentor and more importantly to call you a mate. What you’ve done for Australian tennis is second to none. In my opinion you are the greatest coach, but it’s the culture you’ve created through the Australian Davis Cup team that sets the tone for future Australian tennis. You’ve done it for decades now. We’ve been through a lot together, mate, on and off the court. We’ve helped each other through some really tough times and celebrated the great moments.”
Hewitt paid homage to many others, including his parents, wife and three kids, before concluding with this: “I want to thank all the past Hall of Famers for being here this weekend. It wouldn’t be the same if you guys weren’t here and I didn’t have people to look up to that had done it before me. It’s been an unbelievable experience for me, the whole buildup the last couple of years, but especially this weekend. I think it’s fitting for me to be inducted here in Newport at such a special place.”
Afterwards, a number of Hall of Famers from other classes assembled not far away from where the ceremony took place to pose for photographs together. Afterwards, a group of Hall of Famers including 1992 inductee Tracy Austin and 2017 honoree Andy Roddick circled around Hewitt and shared some congenial banter. I was delighted to be a part of that because I had never seen anything like it. As the sole Hall of Famer on the stage this year, Hewitt was deservedly showered with considerable affection and respect from those who had been there before him. They wanted to share their thoughts with him, and Hewitt was happy and humbled to hear what they had to say.
The next day, I made the three hour drive home with my wife, and found myself reflecting on what made Hewitt the champion he was. It started with his unshakable psyche and his towering qualities as a competitor. Another significant factor was his magnificent return of serve. Across the last fifty years— at least in my view— Djokovic’s return of serve has been the very best, with Jimmy Connors right behind him. But in my view Hewitt’s return must be regarded as the third best of the last half century. Some experts believe Rafael Nadal’s return of serve belongs up there with Djokovic and Connors, but I in my view Hewitt’s was better than the Spaniard’s.
Hewitt might have achieved even more if his career had not been plagued by so many injuries over his last ten years on the circuit. But the fact remains that Hewitt made the most of his opportunities and fought with astonishing ferocity to accomplish everything he did. He need not look back with any regrets. In the final analysis, Lleyton Hewitt was an exemplary professional, a fellow who never made excuses, a player who was as professional as anyone in his trade, and a man who landed fittingly in Newport to put a capstone on his sterling career.
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