From time to time, every sport throws up moments that feel era-defining.
One thinks, for example, of Tiger Woods’ 12-shot win at the 1997 Masters, Michael Schumacher’s crushing defeat of Mika Häkkinen in the 2000 Formula 1 Driver’s Championship, or Spain’s dominant performance at Euro 2008 as notable recent examples of events in which the peerlessness of the eventual winner was such that the inauguration of a dynasty felt inevitable.
Although it might seem strange to state it 13 years and zero grand slam triumphs on, Lleyton Hewitt’s victory at Wimbledon in 2002 felt similarly seminal.
After all, the Aussie’s 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 defeat of David Nalbandian in the final of the Men’s Singles came just nine months after the then 20-year-old defeated the 14-time major champion Pete Sampras in straight sets in the 2001 US Open final and became the youngest player ever to top the ATP World Tour rankings as a consequence (a record he holds to this day).
To put the scale of Hewitt’s ’02 triumph into some context, Sampras took three years to win a second slam after prevailing at Flushing Meadows as a 19-year-old in 1990. Eight-time major winner, Andre Agassi, meanwhile, had to wait two years before he could replicate his 1992 Wimbledon victory at the US Open.
But it was not just the speed with which Hewitt rose to the top of the world game that made it appear as though he was set to succeed Sampras as the dominant force in men’s tennis for the next decade; it was also the manner in which he was flattening his opposition.
The BBC, for instance, described Hewitt’s straight-sets annihilation of Nalbandian as “one of the most one-sided finals in Wimbledon history” and the Adelaide native triumphed at the All England Club having lost only two sets all tournament.
His victory against Sampras a year earlier was perhaps even more notable, owing to the stylistic changing of the guard that it seemed to herald.
The American was, after all, one of the greatest serve-volley players in tennis history, an athlete who retained a stylistic affiliation to the era of John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors throughout his career. Yet the classically offensive artiste was ruthlessly dismantled by a young pretender exhibiting a defence-orientated game-plan predicated on control of his baseline.
Tactics like this had not been seen before.
While Agassi’s maiden Wimbledon win was principally accomplished from the back of the court, the game had never seen a player cover as much ground and force as many errors as Hewitt. No ball was a lost cause for the ultra-fit, ultra-mobile Aussie and his innovatory blend of tenacious physicality, athletic dynamism and aggressive groundstrokes proved too much for an ageing Tour-elite.
Suffice to say, Hewitt’s game was a far cry from the traditional Australian serve-volley style employed by his immediate predecessors: Pat Cash, Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis.
The Independent’s Steven Wine, for instance, recorded Sampras as having hit 38 unforced errors and only five groundstroke winners in his US Open final defeat against Hewitt and the then 31-year-old described his conqueror’s athleticism as “unbelievable” after the match.
Indeed, reflecting on the defeat in his 2008 biography, A Champions Mind, Sampras calls the ’01 US Open debacle “my worst loss by far in a major final” and recalls that, although Hewitt “still had peach fuzz on his face” and looked more like “a teenage surfing or skateboarding champ” than an elite tennis player, he saw in his opponent “a feisty young gun who was zeroed in on the target on my back and determined to take his shot at greatness”.
One cannot accuse Sampras of retrojecting these qualities on to his usurper either, for after the match he, like many others, proffered that, “You’re going to see this Lleyton Hewitt guy for the next 10 years like you saw me…I lost to a great champion”.
The Wimbledon triumph certainly seemed to back Sampras’ viewpoint up.
The BBC stated that Hewitt’s win “emphatically underscore[d] his status as the new dominant force in men’s tennis” while CBS called Hewitt’s ending a run of “eight different grand slam champions at the last eight majors” the “tennis equivalent of unifying heavyweight boxing belts”.
It is in this context that Hewitt’s return to SW19 next week will evoke sentiments of romance and regret in equal measure.
For while one cannot legitimately term the Aussie’s double-major winning career a failure, it certainly did not live up to up to the sense of promise that abounded 13 years ago.
Hewitt, it turned out, was never the heir to Sampras’ throne, nor was his defensive, baseline game the future of men’s tennis.
The Aussie ultimately shone during the brief interregnum which separated the Sampras era from that of Roger Federer, and while Hewitt briefly rivalled the Swiss (he was beaten by Federer in the US Open final in ’04 before suffering defeat against Marat Safin in the Australian Open final a year later), a mixture of injuries and a failure to develop his game meant that he was fast superseded by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Having finalised plans to call time on a compelling 17-year professional career after next season’s Australian Open, this will be Hewitt’s last Wimbledon and, as at Queen’s Club a week ago (the Aussie is a four-time winner there), we can expect the 34-year-old to receive an emotional send-off.
— Lleyton Hewitt (@lleytonhewitt) June 21, 2015
But given the hype which characterized popular response to his accomplishment in ’02, one would have received very long odds on that being his final slam triumph.