Lleyton Hewitt lost. That’s the short version of what happened at the Australian Open on Thursday night. In his 877th singles match on the professional circuit, the Australian suffered just the 262nd loss of his celebrated career.
The slightly longer version of what happened on Rod Laver Arena is that Hewitt was out-muscled, out-hustled and out-tussled by Spanish 8th seed David Ferrer.
Muscle, hustle and tussle are the qualities with which Hewitt himself once dominated the world’s best players. But he’s 34 now, and hasn’t been a genuine threat in Grand Slam tournaments since John Howard was Prime Minister.
Like a banged up old Commodore, Hewitt has been tough and durable to the last. But he just lacked an extra gear in his final match.
Ferrer, at 33, is not much younger than Hewitt. But throughout this whole match, it seemed like Ferrer was smashing the ball at Hewitt, who by contrast, could do little more than defensively push it back.
That’s the sort of tennis that makes you frustrating to play and hard to beat. But it makes it even harder for you to beat anyone. And so it went tonight. Ferrer had the big shots when needed. Hewitt couldn't quite pressure him into mistakes. And Hewitt lost. The final score was 2-6 4-6 4-6.
And that's that. One of the great Australian sporting careers is over.
Hewitt's first Australian Open match, as a 15-year-old in 1997, was against another Spaniard in Sergei Bruguera. Here's what Bruguera -- who would go on to win two French Opens -- said of Hewitt after that encounter:
"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.”
A year later, Australians really noticed Hewitt for the first time when he won a tournament called the Adelaide International, aged just 16. In the semi finals he ambushed Andre Agassi, who back then was at the top of his game.
"I should have given him more respect," Agassi said after the match.
No one ever made the mistake of underestimating Hewitt again. Though he never had the biggest serve, the most powerful forehand, the most crisp backhand or the deftest volleys, Hewitt somehow cobbled together a good all round game with his signature guts and became the world's number one player for 80 weeks. He won Wimbledon and the US Open and two Davis Cups.
His deeds in the David Cup seemed superhuman. In 2001, Australia beat Brazil in the quarter finals on clay courts in Brazil. The hosts had Gustavo Kuerten, who had won the past two French Opens on the famous Roland Garros clay. Yet somehow, Hewitt conquered him on his least-preferred surface. It was guts and inventiveness personified.
It seems amazing now that through these years, many Australians didn't like Hewitt. We are a nation that has always lionised those who "have a go". Our national narrative is built around celebrating those who make the most of their god-given talents rather than those who are born lucky.
Hewitt was the guy who made the most of what he had. He clearly wasn't the most brilliant tennis player ever born. But by god, he was the toughest. The Fanatics worshipped him. So did most sports lovers.
But some Australians found him him brash and uncouth. What some perceived as heart-on-sleeve, others saw as in-your-face.
It's funny how, over the 20 years of Hewitt's career, the number of haters has thinned out noticeably. Hewitt didn't change in that time, but Australia did. We became a nation more relaxed with displays of patriotism. We came to understand that a fist pump is very different from an up-yours.
Look at Nick Kyrgios today. Now there's an angry young man -- at least on court. Hewitt was never half that mad. Like Kyrgios, he went into character on court and became a deeply intense person. But was he ever really nasty?
Give or take the odd run-in with officials, the answer is no. Lleyton was always just a passionate man, as most of us have come to understand. Nowadays people don't just tolerate Lleyton for who he is, we treasure him. As we should.
Have you seen the interviews with any of the young Australians in action this week at the Australian Open? Just about every young man and woman has said their main influence in tennis is Lleyton Hewitt.
We'll miss Lleyton more than we think. We'll still see him in his new role as Davis Cup captain and hopefully in the commentary box too. Like Shane Warne in cricket, he's full of insights. Also like Warne, he's a straight talker.
Lleyton Hewitt has always had a working man's soul, not a poet’s soul. That’s pretty self-evident, but if you needed a reminder, there was a telling exchange at the press conference after Hewitt’s match on Tuesday night after he beat Australian James Duckworth.
A seasoned American tennis reporter told Hewitt that Pete Sampras had written a letter to his younger self in 2015, and wondered if Hewitt could name one or two things he would say to his younger self.
“I’m not really in a frame of mind to answer that,” was Hewitt’s blunt reply.
And that’s Lleyton. For Hewitt, life for the last 20 years has not been about reflection. It’s been about winning tennis matches. The way he's done that is what’s made him so special.
Tonight he was no longer up to that. There was a telling game in the second set tonight when, at 3-4 down, he had seven break points but couldn't convert. The game went for 15 minutes, but Hewitt just couldn't make the old magic happen. It was everything that was once great about Hewitt, that has always been great about Hewitt. But it didn't quite cut it anymore.
You could say Hewitt "bowed out". But that’s an overused, too-quaint tennis phrase which always makes players sound like ponces. Neither was he bundled out -- a piece of tennis jargon which sounds like someone stuffed a player down the mail chute.
He just lost. But he did it the Lleyton way -- with a grimace on his face, sweat on his brow, a shirt tug here, a finger point there and a whole lot of resistance.
Thanks for the memories, Rusty.