Lleyton Hewitt hasn't changed. But Australia has. Australia's near universal love for our best, most inspirational tennis player of the last 20 years has led Australian Open organisers to designate Tuesday as official 'Come On' day -- in honour of Hewitt's signature motivational phrase.
Hewitt on Tuesday plays Australian James Duckworth. Many are adopting a poultry theme and calling the match his potential swansong. This will be Hewitt's 20th consecutive Australian Open appearance. His first, in 1997, is largely forgotten but was quite the day out for a pimply kid.
The anonymous 15-year-old played Spaniard Sergei Bruguera, who would go on to win back-to-back French Opens in 1993 and '94.
“He played to beat me, not just to play a good match,” Bruguera said recently of that match.
"You could see he had a different mentality than the rest. He surprised me that he kept adjusting his game throughout the match to compete better and better. He went into the match thinking he would do anything to try to win. You could see his champion mentality even at that age.”
Most Australians missed that match. But Hewitt caught the whole nation's attention a year later in 1998 at an event called the Adelaide International. Lacking rankings points or results of note, local boy Hewitt got a wildcard into the tournament.
He used it wisely, beating Aussie Scott Draper, Aussie doubles legend Mark Woodforde and American Vince Spadea. In the semi finals young Lleyton faced a bloke you might have heard of. His name is Andre Agassi and he was at the peak of his powers.
"For me this was not only a dream but it was reality that I was out there and going to share a tennis court with Andre Agassi, the guy I'd idolised for so many years," Lleyton recalled in this excellent video which you can find on the Australian Open website.
"I remember before the match sitting in the locker room with Andre. I didn’t speak to him at all, I didn’t shake hands with him. Brad Gilbert was his coach at the time and Andre could not have looked more relaxed in the locker room sitting reading a book right before the match and Brad Gilbert is sitting next to him giving me the biggest daggers you’ve ever seen for half an hour straight.
"As I’m sitting there just shittin' myself that I gotta go out and play this guy, and I remember actually just as we were about to walk out on court just looking up at the skies and just pleading 'give me a game, please don’t embarrass me out there, just let me win one game'."
Hewitt won more than one game that day. He won the match, and in straight sets too.
"To this day I still don't know how I did it," Hewitt recalled recently.
"The belief to know that as a 16-year-old I could actually beat Andre Agassi, even when you get into a slight winning position, to believe you can actually go out there and finish it off.
"I can't complain except that I should have given him more respect," Aggasi said after the match.
And on reflection back here in the future in 2016, Australia should have given Lleyton Hewitt more respect down the years too. It's quaint now to think that many people didn't like Hewitt because of his overt, heart-on-sleeve displays of patriotism and self-motivation. Such things are normal now. In the late 1990s they were still perceived as a little OTT.
Hewitt became synonymous with the famous 'sock-puppet' gesture where he pointed his fingers at his eyes to help him focus. Some called him uncouth, but it wasn't even his gesture. He borrowed it from the Swede, Mats Wilander, who won three Australian Opens in his Grand Slam haul of seven.
To some, Hewitt always symbolised crudeness. Such judgments seem positively archaic in an era where our current leading male player, Nick Kyrgios, infamously discussed an opponent's bedroom habits in tones loud enough for the whole crowd to hear.
Lleyton never did anything like that. Not even close. A model family man today, he is, and more or less has always been, polite off the court and supremely motivated but fair on it -- give or take one or two minor indiscretions of the type most tennis players commit.
They say that Lleyton even still calls his original tennis coach Peter Smith "Mr Smith".
Lleyton Hewitt never had the biggest serve, the most piercing groundstrokes or the deftest touch on a tennis court. But his ticker won him Wimbledon, the US Open and the Davis Cup. That's the quality well which the Australian Open is celebrating on Tuesday with 'Come On' Day.
And Tuesday night will be 'Come On' night. And if Lleyton loses, we should all remember that passion and dedication and guts can still take you to some pretty worthwhile places in life -- and that those qualities shouldn't be mistaken for something more vulgar or insidious.Suggest a correction