The Reshaping of an Era - UBITENNIS
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The Reshaping of an Era

While Djokovic will still compete for the biggest titles, Medvedev and Zverev proved at the ATP Finals that they are coming for the title of World No.1

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Alexander Zverev at the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals (Twitter - @atptour)

For as long as I can remember, those of us who inhabit the world of tennis as journalists and surveyors of the scene have referred to the hierarchy of men’s tennis as “The Big Three”. The oldest member of that iconic trio is, of course, 40-year-old Roger Federer. He was joined by 35-year-old Rafael Nadal and 34-year-old Novak Djokovic. These luminous figures have carried the game forward regally and collectively for the better part of two decades, claiming a record 20 men’s major titles apiece, scaling the heights of the sport time and time again, leaving all of their peers dumbfounded and deflated by virtue of their enduring excellence— not to mention their unbending pride and professionalism. It has been an era unlike any other in the history of tennis as these superstars have enthralled fans in every corner of the globe with their talent, tenaciousness and temerity.

 

But as the curtain closes on 2021 and the Nitto ATP Finals have just concluded in Turin, it is becoming increasingly likely that the sport is currently moving into a fascinating new era. In many ways, it appears as if the men’s game is being reshaped. Federer may not return to competitive play until the summer of 2022. By then he will be closing in on his 41st birthday, and the feeling grows that he will not be around much longer in the upper echelons as a player. He might even decide to retire by the end of this coming season. Nadal is hoping he can resume his winning ways swiftly when he returns to Melbourne for the Australian Open, and surely wants to round into his finest clay court form across the spring before heading to Paris for a serious bid at a 14th French Open crown.

And yet, only time will tell if Nadal’s foot woes— which plagued him in 2021 and cut his season short—will linger in 2022. The depth of his determination knows no bounds, but the fact remains that his task of reclaiming a place at or near the top of the game will be daunting. Perhaps Nadal will reinvent himself once more and redefine his greatness in the process, but there are no guarantees. The first six months of 2022 will be critical for the redoubtable Spaniard and he will have the chance to make himself a central figure again, but if his foot remains problematic Nadal might be heading toward the closing stages of his illustrious career. Despite an abbreviated 2021 campaign of only seven tournaments and 29 matches (24-5), the dynamic Spaniard finished his record 17th consecutive year among the top ten in the world at No. 6.

Djokovic, of course, is coming off one of his most exhilarating campaigns. In 2021, he moved within one match of winning the Grand Slam, sweeping three majors in a row to tie Federer and Nadal at 20 in total, finishing his seventh season at No. 1 in the world to break Pete Sampras’s record of residing at the top for six years (1993-98). Djokovic claimed two other titles during his spectacular 2021 campaign including a recent triumph at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Paris. Although the Serbian was beaten in a pulsating semifinal at the ATP Finals by Sascha Zverev— and thus was unable to take a sixth title at the season-ending tournament—the fact remains that he celebrated one of the three greatest years (alongside 2011 and 2015) of his astonishing career, and he still stands deservedly alone at the top of is craft.

I believe that there may well be a new “Big Three” in the game over the next couple of years with Djokovic clearly very much in the mix, but joined by the two men who collided in the final of the  Nitto ATP Finals at Turin. Zverev won that prestigious title for the second time by upending defending champion and US Open victor Daniil Medvedev in the title round contest. In my view, Djokovic will find himself in frequent combat over the next couple of years against both the German and the Russian on the premier stages in the sport.

To be sure, Medvedev has not yet demonstrated an affinity to play the same brand of lofty tennis he has exhibited on hardcourts when he shifts to clay and grass courts. He reached his first quarterfinal at Roland Garros this year after four first round defeats on the Paris clay in the preceding years, and has yet to advance that far on the lawns of Wimbledon. At the All England Club, he has never made it to the quarterfinals, although he was one set away this year from going that far before losing to Hubert Hurkacz.

The fact remains that Medvedev did win a pre-Wimbledon ATP Tour event this year in Mallorca, Spain on grass, and he was a semifinalist at the ATP Masters 1000 clay court tournament in Monte Carlo two years ago. That is a modest accomplishment, but still an indication of what he can do on his least favorite surface. I have no doubt that Medvedev will make major inroads on the other surfaces in the next few years, even if his preference will still be competing on hard courts.

As for Zverev, he has displayed his versatility and virtuosity for quite some time. As long ago as 2017, this gifted individual won Masters 1000 crowns on both clay and hard courts in Rome and Canada. He took a second Masters 1000 clay court crown in 2018 at Madrid. And this year he was victorious in two more Masters 1000 events, succeeding on clay again in Madrid and on hardcourts in Cincinnati. Like Medvedev, Zverev has struggled inordinately on grass at Wimbledon and has yet to make it past the fourth round. But the feeling grows that he will adapt in due course to the lower bounces and turn himself into a formidable grass court player.

It is simply no accident that Medvedev and Zverev have established themselves as the second and third best players in the world. That is a status they have irrefutably earned. No one won more titles on the ATP Tour this year than Zverev, who finished his best season yet with six. Moreover, he collected the gold medal at the Olympic Games, although no ATP points were available at that prestigious event. Zverev closed the 2021 season by capturing four of his last seven tournaments in a hardcourt blaze.

Daniil Medvedev at the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals (Credit: @atptour on Twitter)

Medvedev was only marginally better than Zverev in 2021, securing his first Major by upsetting Djokovic in New York, losing to Djokovic at the Australian Open and Paris Masters 1000 finals, and winning the Canada Masters 1000 title in Toronto. He won four titles in addition to reaching two major finals and coming though for the first time on one of the premier stages.

Beyond what they did on their own, both Zverev and Medvedev pushed Djokovic to the hilt in riveting rivalries. Zverev and Djokovic clashed on five occasions in 2021 with the Serbian prevailing 3-2 in the series, although Zverev won two of their last three clashes. Medvedev was 1-2 against Djokovic. Djokovic now holds a 6-4 career lead against Medvedev and he is 7-4 versus Zverev.

But what makes it all so compelling is that Medvedev and Zverev both improved significantly over the course of the 2021 season and their standards are so high that they will keep forcing the ever open-minded and singularly flexible Djokovic to raise his game. I believe Djokovic is up to that considerable task and will at least hold his own with his two toughest younger rivals in 2022 and 2023, but Zverev is only 24 and Medvedev 25. They are just approaching their primes. Djokovic is stretching his prime as long and as far as he possibly can.

I can envision some classic confrontations among this accomplished trio in the coming years. Djokovic will be preoccupied with moving permanently past Federer and Nadal into sole possession for the most majors ever taken by a man, but achieving that mission will be determined to an extent by how he fares against Medvedev and Zverev. They will be his chief adversaries.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between Zverev and Medvedev will be fascinating to follow as well. The Russian warrior had toppled the German competitor five times in a row leading up to the final in Turin, including a narrow triumph during the round robin portion of the ATP Finals.

Let’s look at that contest first. Medvedev broke Zverev once in the course of winning the first set but neither man garnered a break the rest of the way. Zverev took the second set in a tie-break. On they went to settle it all in a third set tie-break, and Zverev moved out in front 4-2. On the crucial seventh point, he sent his normally trustworthy two-handed backhand down the line and into the net without being provoked. Medvedev climbed back to 4-4 and then Zverev squandered another opportunity. He lobbed over the Russian’s backhand side, forcing Medvedev to play a relatively weak high backhand volley crosscourt. Zverev was set up for a backhand down the line that would have given him the point, but drove it long. Although Zverev saved a pair of match points from 4–6 down, he was eventually ousted 6-3 6-7(3) 7-6(6). In that clash, there was only the thinnest margin separating the two players. They would meet again, of course, with the stakes much higher in the final, but more on that skirmish later.

Despite the disappointment of a narrow failure against Medvedev, Zverev prevailed in his two other Red Group round robin assignments in Turin against an injured Matteo Berrettini (7-6(7) 1-0 ret.) and a wobbly Hubert Hurkacz 6-2 6-4, and that earned the 24-year-old a semifinal duel with Djokovic. The world No. 1 had played top of the line tennis in all three of his Green Group round robin matches, taking apart Casper Ruud, Andrey Rublev and Cam Norrie without losing a set.

Djokovic and Zverev had pushed each other to their physical and emotional limits in all four of their previous meetings across 2021. The Serbian had triumphed 7-5 in the final set at the ATP Cup before eclipsing Zverev again in a come-from-behind four set Australian Open quarterfinal. Zverev had turned the tables on Djokovic in the semifinals of the Olympic Games at Tokyo, rallying from a set and a break down to win 1-6 6-3 6-1 before garnering the gold medal easily over Karen Khachanov.

The rivalry was renewed in New York at the US Open when Djokovic surpassed Zverev 6-2 in the fifth set of a stirring semifinal showdown. Proving that the past is indeed prologue, these two magnificent players produced another blockbuster in Turin. The level of play was nothing short of stupendous, especially over the first two sets. At the end of the first set, both men created space for crucial opportunities. It was pivotal in determining the outcome of the match because no one in the Open Era has a better record after winning the first set than the game’s finest front runner Djokovic.

Zverev was serving at 4-5 in that opening set when Djokovic went to work with quiet ferocity. He reached set point with a crackling backhand down the line that was unanswerable. Zverev met that moment commendably, unleashing a 136 MPH first serve out wide in the ad court. Djokovic’s blocked backhand return landed long. On the following point at deuce, Zverev went for broke with a dangerous 138 MPH second serve down the T, and Djokovic was unable to get it back into play. Zverev held on gamely for 5-5.

In the eleventh game, Djokovic found himself perched precariously at 15-40. He decided to serve-and-volley to the forehand and Zverev’s crosscourt return was wide. And then, at 30-40, Djokovic played a point that was so extraordinary he could only smile incredulously at what he had just done when it was over. Once more, he served-and-volleyed. Zverev’s backhand return was letter perfect, hit hard and low crosscourt. Djokovic stayed low, picked up the backhand half volley immaculately, and sent that shot sizzling down the line with improbable pace and excellent depth. On the run, Zverev had no play at all.

Djokovic took the next two points to hold on for 6-5 and then reached 0–30 in the following game. But Zverev swept four points in a row to reach a tie-break, producing a clutch backhand volley winner, putting away an overhead, releasing a superb service winner, and lacing a backhand winner down the line with cool precision.

Novak Djokovic at the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals (Credit: @atptour on Twitter)

Zverev outplayed Djokovic in the tie-break 7-4, benefitting from a double fault at 2-2 by Djokovic— the first all tournament long from the Serbian. Djokovic retaliated with a service break at 4-4 in the second set, and soon sealed the set. But, to the chagrin of himself and his legion of supporters, Djokovic played one poor game at 1-2 in the third set that cost him the whole match. He was broken in that game entirely on his own mistakes, making three unforced errors off the forehand and one off the backhand. Zverev was ahead 3-1. He was apprehensive at 4-2, taking too much off his first serve and cautiously steering his groundstrokes. But Zverev fended off one break point on another forehand unforced error from Djokovic, and came through to win 7-6(4) 4-6 6-3. Across the three sets, Zverev double faulted only once.

Despite the supreme physicality of that match, Zverev seemed fresh and unruffled in the final despite his losing streak against Medvedev. Truthfully, Medvedev had not played that well heading into the final. He opened with a 6-7(5) 6-3 6-4 victory over Hurkacz, came within two points of defeat against Zverev and then saved two match points against alternate Jannik Sinner, who took Berrettini’s place and crushed Hurkacz in straight sets.

Understandably, Medvedev was concerned about preserving energy for his semifinal encounter when he faced Sinner in the round robin. But he took the first set comfortably before losing a tie-break in the second set. In the middle of the third set, down a break at 2-4, Medvedev was no longer interested in fighting through long and debilitating rallies. He started shortening points and hitting almost every second serve like a first delivery. Eventually, Medvedev somehow pulled out that match with his undervalued survival instincts, saving two match points in the third set tie-break, winning 6-1 6-7(5) 7-6(8).

The world No. 2 did perform more persuasively in a 6-4 6-2 semifinal dismissal of Casper Ruud, pulling off his only straight set win of the week. But in my view it was not enough to give him the unwavering confidence required to defeat Zverev in the final. In some ways, the situation reminded me of what happened a few weeks earlier at the Paris Masters 1000 event. Medvedev had made his way to the final with big point efficiency but he was not necessarily at the top of his game. He played a very good final against Djokovic, but the Serbian was clearly the better man on that important occasion. He succeeded in three sets.

This time around against Zverev, Medvedev knew full well that he had been fortunate to escape against the German in the round robin. Medvedev was also well aware that it is no simple task to beat the same player twice in a week at a tournament reserved for only the elite. In fact, prior to this title round appointment, the player who had lost in the round robin all through tournament history was triumphant when taking on the same player again in the final 10 out of 18 instances.

Zverev himself had achieved that feat once before, defeating Djokovic in a straight set final after losing to the Serbian in the round robin three years ago. Pete Sampras holds the record with three reversals of fortune in his five times as the champion at the ATP Finals. In 1994, 1996, and 1999 Sampras turned the tables on a prominent opponent to lift the trophy. He did it against Boris Becker in 1994 and 1996, and repeated that remarkable feat in 1999 against Andre Agassi.

Medvedev was fundamentally outplayed and out-served by Zverev on this occasion. Zverev was at his zenith and gave one of the greatest performances of his career. In ten service games against one of the sport’s premier practitioners on the return of serve, Zverev never even faced a break point. He won 33 of 40 points on his first serve (83%) and eight of fourteen on second serve (57%). Altogether Zverev connected with 74% of his first serves. In the round robin against Medvedev, Zverev made 79% of his first serves but his location and pinpoint precision were far superior in the final. As was the case against Djokovic in the penultimate round, Zverev served only one double fault in the final round match versus Medvedev.

So often in the past, Zverev’s confusion over how hard to hit his second serve has been a terrible hindrance, but this year in Turin he found considerably more clarity of mind and took no unnecessary risks. In the entire tournament, he produced only five double faults in his five matches. His averaged 75% on first serves for the tournament and held serve in 56 of 58 games for a 97% success rate. To be sure, the hardcourts in Turin were playing exceptionally fast and were a server’s domain. Djokovic was broken only three times in his four matches and Medvedev lost his serve only four times in five contests. But Zverev’s serve was the best of anyone in the field, and his ground game was impenetrable. He hardly missed against Djokovic and was awfully good from the backcourt against Medvedev in the final as well.

Zverev established early leads in both sets of this confrontation between two towering men who both stand at 6’6”, and the German never relinquished his authority throughout an impeccably played final on his side of the net. Incidentally, this was the first time the final was contested by two players without one of them being over 25 since David Nalbandian, 23, beat Roger Federer, 24, in 2005. Zverev is now 24 and Medvedev 25. That is a significant as a barometer for the future. Their best is yet to come. Moreover, in the FedEx Year-End ATP Rankings of 2021 just released, eight of the top ten are in their twenties; only Nadal, 35, and Djokovic, 34, are in their thirties. Eight of the top ten are 25 years of age or younger; the last time this happened was in 1995. That is not inconsequential. 

In any case, Zverev made his move in the third game of the match. After Medvedev rallied from 0-40 to 30-40, the German profited from a fortunate winner off the net cord to secure a quick service break lead. He won 20 of 25 points on serve in that dominant set, and advertised his superiority on the day by taking a 23 stroke exchange with a scintillating forehand winner down the line that gave him a 5-3 lead. In every aspect of the game—from his serve, to his baseline prowess, to his agility at the net—Zverev was the decidedly better player.

In the second set, the script was much the same. Helped by a Medvedev double fault that created a 15-30 opening, Zverev broke at 30 in the first game and never looked back. He was taken to deuce in one service name before holding for 4-2, but otherwise was untroubled. Zverev served for the match at 5-4 and from 0-15 he never lost another point, closing out the contest with a second serve ace out wide in the deuce court. The scoreline was 6-4, 6-4 for Zverev but the gap between the two combatants was considerably larger than that.

Now we can imagine a future sparkling with possibilities among the captivating trio of Djokovic, Medvedev and Zverev. This is not to say that others will not be others in the conversation. Stefanos Tsitsipas had a spectacular first half of 2021, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open, opening up a two sets to love lead in the French Open final before losing to Djokovic, and winning his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo. By the end of the year he was ailing with an arm/elbow injury. Felix Auger-Aliassime made inroads this year and will improve enormously in 2022. Dominic Thiem will be back in the coming year looking for a second major title. Nadal just might surprise us all with a sweeping physical recovery.

But— the way I see it—the levers of control will largely belong to the three distinctive individuals from Serbia, Russia and Germany. They figure to be the pace setters over the next couple of years. It seems entirely possible that we are heading into a spellbinding stretch featuring a fellow in his mid-thirties who just might be the greatest tennis player of all time, and a couple of keynote performers in their mid-twenties trying to knock the Serbian off his pedestal. I am looking forward to watching it all unfold.

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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.

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US Open: Shelby Rogers Delivers; Serena Still A Threat To Win 24th Major

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Serena Williams - US Open (photo Twitter @usopen)

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.

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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. 

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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.

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Iga Swiatek (@TennisHandshake - Twitter)

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.

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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.

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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. 

https://twitter.com/TennisHalloFame/status/1548013640313278466

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.

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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.”

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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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