Australia’s been blessed with any number of sporting greats. We’ve always punched above our weight as a sporting nation and many of our heroes have been renowned for their fight. But this week I witnessed a performance that I rate among the greatest ever displays of fighting spirit by any Australian sportsman or woman… ever!
Lleyton Hewitt, currently ranked some 150 in the world played Novak Djokovic, the current World Number 1. Hewitt’s hardly played in two years, fighting an ongoing battle with various injuries that’s seem him hospitalised for six or more surgical procedures. Djokovic had just about the greatest year any tennis player’s ever had in 2011… he won 10 titles including no less than three Majors (the Australian, Wimbledon and US Open). He held a winning streak of 43 matches in a row (only beaten by two other players in history – Vilas with 46 wins and Lendl with 44).
Pete Sampras declared Djokovic’s season as the best he has ever seen in his lifetime, calling it “one of the best achievements in all of sports.” Boris Becker called Djokovic’s season “one of the very best years in tennis of all time,” adding that “while it may not be THE best statistically, he’s had to beat two of the best ever in Federer and Nadal. He’s beaten everybody that came around to challenge him in the biggest tournaments in the world.”
Hewitt had done brilliantly to even make the 4th round, with stirring wins over Cedrik-Marcel Stebe,Andy Roddick and Milos Raonic (ranked by his peers as the best newcomer to the tour in 2011, ahead of Bernard Tomic). Djokovic had progressed to the 4th round in a canter, losing a total of just six games in three matches.
The Joker started the match on fire, winning the first set 6-1, even though Lleyton was hitting the ball well. The Aussie didn’t win a serve until part-way through the 2nd set and was soon down 2 sets to nil and 3-0 in the 3rd, a break down. The match seemed as good as over. But incredibly, even at that stage, Hewitt still believed he could win it!
The power of his shots increased to a level not seen for years. He challenged the Serb champion to pass him by attacking the net at every opportunity. The tide turned. Hewitt’s renowned intensity reached new heights and was matched in the players’ box by his coach Tony Roche, another Aussie icon. Out of nowhere, Hewitt claimed a break to lead 5-4 and was serving for the set.
He had no right to be in this position. His damaged left big toe had him grimacing in pain every time he was stretched wide and landed on that side. But he fought through that barrier… and the fact he was playing the current best player in the world on his favourite surface. He just refused to lose.
In that crucial 10th game of the 3rd set, Lleyton couldn’t buy a first serve… yet still he fought his way to set point. Djokovic smashed outright winners to save one, then another set point. It took three deuces before the courageous Australian forced a forehand error to take that 3rd set, but when he did, he looked up at Team Hewitt and the pride in his performance combined with the effort it had taken to wrest a set from the top seed caused that firm chin nto quiver ever so slightly.
He didn’t win the match, fighting hard in the fourth too before going down 6-1, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3… but we didn’t win at Gallipoli either. I was so in admiration of the fight I’d just seen, so pumped by the best effort Lleyton Hewitt has put in for many years that even though the match finished at around 1:10am, I was still wide awake at 2:30. An awesome display that made you proud to be Australian.
Good on you Lleyton… and Happy Australia Day to everyone.
P.S. It would be remiss to not also mention the phenomenal effort of Bernard Tomic in this Australian Open. At 19, he has the world at his feet. I hoped he watched Lleyton’s match. If he can add a fair dose of Hewitt’s fighting spirit to his immense natural talent, his future at the top end of the game is assured. Add to that the excellent performances of James Duckworth and Matt Ebden in the main draw and Luke Saville, Andrew Harris, Chris O’Connell and Jack Schipanski in the Juniors, along with the mercurial talent that is Ashleigh Barty and the future of Australian tennis is suddenly looking very bright indeed.