Watching Lleyton Hewitt defeat Feliciano Lopez in Brisbane on Thursday, one could be forgiven for becoming wistful. It’s not a phrase often associated with Hewitt, a man who for much of his career “was prone to tantrums, disrespect and a general lack of grace,” while being “entangled in ugly wrangles with officials and…quarrelsome with fellow professionals.” Indeed, such a feeling gave me pause.
Like many Aussies, I never liked Lleyton when he was in his prime. Memorable moments from his career – claiming that a US Open linesperson was favouring James Blake because they were both African American; participating in a spiteful Davis Cup match against Guillermo Coria in Sydney before criticising the Argentinian team for trying to get under his skin, when that was precisely what he was trying to do to them; bandying around words like “spastic” and “poofter” in relation to officials – often served only to embarrass his countrymen rather than endear him to them.
It was Hewitt’s insolence, arrogance and sense of self-entitlement that imbued so many Australian sports fans with a natural inclination to shake their head at “The Little Wanker”, restricting our level of passion and support for his tenacious exploits on the court.
My introduction to Lleyton was accidental. I was on an outside court at Melbourne Park in 1997, waiting for my childhood-celebrity-crush Jennifer Capriati to come on court following Sergei Bruguera’s match against a 16 year-old Aussie qualifier making his Grand Slam debut. I remember reporting back to family and friends that the kid was hilarious – completely outclassed by a Grand Slam champion, but feisty and arrogant enough to berate himself and his entourage as if he should have won. I appreciated his guts and wheels, and hoped that someone would beat his arrogant streak out of him before he hit the tour proper.
No-one did, of course, so this Aussie tennis fan who was perfectly placed to have stumbled across a new favourite instead spent Hewitt’s career alternately ignoring and cheering against him. In 2002, I introduced Mrs EPO to Melbourne Park for the first time, and we cheered as the Australian world #1 became the first top seed to lose in the first round of a Slam for 12 years. During the infamous medical time-out that Hewitt’s opponent Alberto Martin took when he was just two points from victory, the two of us enjoyed an extremely rare spontaneous-public-dance, celebrating life, love, joy, and the loss of the arrogant kid we loved to hate.
And yet, this past Thursday, I was wistful.
I was wistful for a bygone era. An era that included a night when Mrs EPO and I drove to Sydney in 2001 to the Tennis Masters Cup on the night when Hewitt was crowned the year-end World Number 1. Mind you, Mrs EPO and I weren’t there to watch Lleyton. Rather, we were there to watch Australia’s beloved Pat Rafter – the champion who composed himself in the way we wished all Aussies could – play his last match on tour.
It was Rafter’s era – what is possibly the greatest couple of years in the history of Australian sport – that I was wistful for this past week. An era that appears destined to become the glory days of my generation’s Australian sporting fandom. And with the recent retirement of the incomparable Sharelle McMahon – like Rafter, an anti-Lleyton in so many ways – Hewitt is now one of our final two connections to Australia’s incredible successes of 1999-2000.
In 1999, Hewitt was a member of Australia’s Davis Cup-winning team alongside Mark Phillippoussis and the Woodies with an injured Rafter looking on. It was the glorious year in which the irresistible Wayne Arthurs defeated Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Brisbane in the semis.
Back in 1999, Sharelle McMahon hit the game-winner in the World Netball Championships Final on a team that included other current and future Australian captains Vicki Wilson, Kathryn Harby and Liz Ellis.
Back in 1999, South Africa’s Herschelle Gibbs dropped Steve Waugh – and the World Cup – in a game that Wisden argued “must have been the best one-day international of the 1,483 so far played.” The tied semi-final saw Australia through to the final that they won comprehensively, the team including Warne, the Waugh brothers, Gilchrist, Ponting, Bevan and McGrath.
Back in 1999, the Wallabies won the Rugby World Cup behind men like Eales, Gregan, Larkham, Roff, Horan and Tune.
Back in 1999, there was Hackett-vs-Perkins-vs-Kowalski in the 1500m and a kid called Thorpe in everything else. There was major-winning Karrie Webb and World Champions Susie O’Neill and Cathy Freeman.
And an 18 year-old kid called Hewitt was winning the Davis Cup.
Hewitt won the Davis Cup before Sydney hosted the Olympics and Thorpe won his first Olympic Gold. Before Stephen Bradbury became the first Aussie to win a Winter Olympic Gold. Before Friendster, MySpace and LinkedIn, let alone Facebook and YouTube. He won the Davis Cup in a time when some feared Y2K but all were blissfully ignorant of the imminent September 11.
As he grows older, we appreciate Hewitt more for the matured man he has become. But we don’t long for his younger self. Rather, we long for all of the other now-iconic superstars of Australian sport circa 1999-2000, when Australia appeared to be as impressive on the world stage as ever before or since.
If only Lleyton had been as gracious, warm, humble and self-deprecating as Australia’s other remaining sporting hero from the turn of the century’s golden age, he would be revered in a completely different way.
For while Lleyton embarrassed us for much of his career, Lauren Jackson just continues to swell our hearts with pride.