I never liked Lleyton Hewitt. A lot of tennis fandom boils down to two things -- who you like, and who beats the person you like -- and from the start Hewitt belonged to the latter category. He hastened the end of Pete Sampras' career and slowed the start of Andy Roddick's. That wasn't particularly endearing to this American tennis fan.
Hewitt came out of nowhere. He was a well-regarded junior but never one of the top players at that level, but by 19 he found himself giving Sampras fits in the U.S. Open semifinals. A year later, he was laying waste to Sampras in the U.S. Open finals and moving to No. 1 in the world.
Hewitt was polarizing from the start. By most accounts a decent mate off the court, the Aussie was beyond feisty on it. He was a 5'10 bulldog who yelled "COME ON" louder than anybody else and treated officials as enemies until the final point was over. He got into trouble a few times for it, and he alienated more than a few opponents; Argentina's Juan Ignacio Chela once spit at him on the court, in fact. He wasn't a stoic champion; he had more than a little Jimmy Connors in him. If you liked him, you probably called him a fierce competitor. If you resented him for beating the guys you liked, you probably thought of him more as a jerk.
Over time, though, Hewitt became a different kind of story. He peaked impossibly early, and he forced other young players -- those more physically gifted -- to change their style. When they did so, he had less to offer.
Hewitt reached four slam semifinals between 2000 and 2002 and won twice. He reached four more semis in 2004-05. But that was it. He went deep into the fifth set with Roddick in the 2009 Wimbledon quarterfinals, but it was his last one. He would play 23 more slams and never again reach the second week.
But he kept playing. He kept battling back from injury after injury -- one hip, a toe, the other hip -- to show back up and fight again. He missed two slams in 2011 and only made it past the second round twice afterward, but he enjoyed playing tennis, testing himself and testing others, and he kept coming back and making a living on tour.
Eight slam semifinal appearances and two championships gives you credibility on the list of all-time greats. But over his lengthy career, Hewitt ended up establishing a reputation as much for being a pro's pro as being a contender.
He was still kind of a jerk, mind you. In fact, in his final tour match, a straight-set loss to David Ferrer (who called him "my mirror, my idol" in a post-match interview), he took time out to castigate official Pascal Maria, saying "You're a freaking idiot. That's why everyone in the locker room thinks you're so full of yourself." And then, after the match, he winked at Ferrer, shook Maria's hand and brought his kids out onto the court for his goodbye. His on-court demeanor didn't set the greatest example for temperamental young Aussies like Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios; his dedication to the sport, however, did.
Hewitt long ago announced that the 2016 Australian Open would be his final event, and the tributes were prepared well in advance. Plenty of pros like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal recorded tributes to him. ESPN's scrolling ticker was loaded with Hewitt goodies, from a list of career highlights to a set of "what the world was like" tidbits from 1997, the year he played in his first Aussie Open.
Most Hewitt tribute articles followed the same trajectory -- early success, injuries, etc. -- but Tom Perrotta's Wall Street Journal piece was the most apt of the bunch. He pointed to Hewitt's most important role: that of change agent.
Before Hewitt, there used to be a clear division between defensive and offensive players. Hewitt blurred that line, which the game’s aforementioned giants have since erased. Like Hewitt, they can all defend with bursts of speed and quick hands, but also attack from a defensive position. Like Hewitt, they have no glaring weaknesses.
"The past champions of every era always had a place to get to, a safe zone," said Darren Cahill, the ESPN commentator who coached Hewitt through his best years on the tour. "Pete’s backhand wasn’t that strong. Andre [Agassi’s] movement wasn’t that strong. You go through every single player and they all had a slight weakness that you could attack. Lleyton of that period, he did not."
Hewitt's well-rounded game and ability to turn defense into offense completely defined tennis' current era, even if he himself was barely an elite player in that era. Federer began his career as a Sampras-esque serve-and-volleyer until Hewitt, after so ungraciously sending Sampras packing, picked Federer apart on multiple occasions. But when Federer changed his game, creating more shots and angles from the baseline, he became unstoppable. And after losing seven of his first nine matches to Hewitt, he later won 15 in a row in the rivalry. Hewitt's rivalry with Roddick saw a similar mid-career shift.
Athletes like Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all play versions of Hewitt's game, only in bigger, stronger, often healthier bodies. Like Hal Mumme introduced a style of college football offense that others would imitate with better recruits, like Mike D'Antoni set the table for a faster, more threes-based game of basketball without winning the NBA titles that others would claim, Hewitt defined his sport while others took most of the glory. That he did that while still claiming a ferocious four-year run of success created a lasting legacy. That he followed that up by grinding away and setting an example and work ethic for a decade's worth of young pros adds another layer. And in the end, his positive traits outweighed his abrasive ones.