Lamenting Lleyton: the unpopular Aussie battler

19 January 2011

Written by: Renee Tibbs

Jonathan Wilson, football writer for The Guardian, a man who his workmates refer to as ‘football’s floating brain in a tank on wheels’, just wanted to watch the Asian Cup match between Australia and Bahrain. Unfortunately, Eurosport in the UK was showing the end of the five-set marathon between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian in the Australian Open.

Wilson chose to vent his frustration on Twitter. ‘Who cares about tennis when there’s Australia v Bahrain on?’ was followed by ‘Come on, match point Hewitt; get this done.’ Seconds later: ‘You bottling Aussie idiot.

Amusing as it may have been, revealing as it may have been about the one-sport country the UK often seems to be, that final tweet was not true, as many of Wilson’s followers pointed out (in fairness, he himself clarified that his frustration ‘should not be construed as considered analysis’). Of all the things one may call Lleyton Hewitt, ‘bottling’ – or ‘lacking courage’ to translate from Britspeak – is not one of them.

Hewitt has never been among Australia’s most popular sportsmen. An abrasive attitude has seen him clash with, variously, opponents (including Nalbandian), umpires, coaches and even his best-man-to-be. Early in his career, a far less mature Hewitt was accused of racism in a US Open encounter with James Blake, and was forced to apologise to the Spastic Society after twice calling match officials ‘spastic.’ His list of indiscretions doesn’t end there, and good deal of his unpopularity can be traced to a comment regarding the ‘stupidity of the Australian public’ back in 2000.

In many ways, there is also a level of unfulfilled promise with Hewitt. For a player who was once ranked the world’s best player, a Wimbledon and US Open champion, there remains some feeling that he should have won more. Part of this was the disappointment of the 2005 Australian Open – his one opportunity during Roger Federer’s golden run prior to the emergence of Rafael Nadal. Hewitt advanced – through five-setters against Nalbandian and an 18-year-old Nadal – all the way to the final against Marat Safin, where he won the first set 6-1 before the Russian took the next three to lift the trophy.

Two semi-final losses to Federer that year were the closest he has come to making an impact in a major since. His undoing was a combination of four Fs – form, fitness, Federer and five-setters. How those five-setters frustrated his fanbase over the years. As the top seeds cruised through the opening stages, Hewitt routinely subjected – and continues to subject – himself to early-round marathons. The second round of Wimbledon 2006 saw the sixth-seeded Hewitt go the distance against Lee Hyung-Taik of South Korea, then ranked 102nd and never higher than 36th. Then there was the 2007 Australian Open first round, when he came back from two sets down to American qualifier Michael Russell. Or a year later and the memorable 4:33am finish against Marcos Baghdatis. Routinely, by the time he faced someone who would challenge a fully-fit Hewitt, his exhaustion would show. His 30-15 record in five-setters is to be lauded, but has also been his undoing.

Eventually, all the miles began to show. Repeated hip troubles in the past two-and-a-half years have limited his ability to compete on the tour. Having dropped down the rankings, the tougher matches have come early and, since returning, the ascent hasn’t been as easy. There is a new generation of players, younger, quicker and just as tough; battle-hardened by the two-headed monster that is the Federer/Nadal duopoly.

But through it all, Hewitt has never given up. It is the reason those matches have gone five sets when so many could have been lost causes. His tenacity is second-to-none; he retains a willingness to chase – and often get to – that impossible ball, if only to prolong the point and make his opponent work that little bit harder.

The desire for victory fuels the fire within. Certainly, it has pushed him over the edge on more than one occasion. But even John McEnroe is now considered a respected elder statesman and Hewitt, for all his faults, was never as boorish as the Superbrat at his worst. But it has also made him successful enough to rise to the top of his craft, and even be considered the third-best player of the 2000s.

And his pride has always – always – extended to the courts of the Davis Cup, when his body allowed. His 36-9 record in singles and 44-12 overall mark are both Australian records for wins. Even though much of his country didn’t love him, Hewitt has always loved his country.

His epic encounter with old rival Nalbandian at this year’s Australian Open, therefore, remained captivating. His loss was again disappointing, particularly given the lack of other promising options in the men’s draw. But even in defeat, even in what must surely be considered the twilight of his career, he showed that quality that Australians like to tell ourselves that we all possess: the never-say-die spirit.

Hewitt may be a lot of things: Boorish? At times, yes. Aussie? Of course. Bottling? Never. He doesn’t know the meaning of the world. And it is why, love him or hate him, he remains Our Lleyton.

Evan Harding is a London-based freelance journalist and the UK correspondent for upstart.