Then he moved to the centre of the court, turned to his travelling band of ever boisterous supporters – aka The Fanatics – and offered them a grateful thumbs-up.
Then he was gone, taking with him a loss and the end of a 17-year career of singles battles at Wimbledon. This, he said beforehand, would be his last. The injuries have taken their toll on the 34-year-old; the body still hears but cannot respond as it used to and subsequently his form has gone. But nothing in his Wimbledon singles career became him like the manner of his leaving it.
It was inevitable that he would bow out with a dogfight. A five-set, full-pelt seesaw of a match; and the script was enhanced by the happenstance of his opponent. The left-handed Finn Jarkko Nieminen, 33, had also declared this would be his final Wimbledon. Few paid much attention because celebrated as he is, there are no grand slams to his name, just a Wimbledon quarter-final in 2006. But Nieminen also had reason to chase every cause.
Without flinching they by turns attacked and counter-punched – Hewitt winning the first set 6-3, Nieminen raising his game to take the second, Hewitt dominant in the third and then wretched during an injury-beset fourth, which he lost 6-0.
All four sets provided great drama, but were in hindsight just the warm-up for an utterly engrossing fifth set of 90 gruelling minutes. By the end Nieminen, slightly steadier, took it 11-9. But both men were on emergency batteries.
If there was a way to lose a final match, reflected Hewitt, this was it. “That pretty much summed up my career,” he said. “My never-say-die attitude. I have lived with that for 18 or 19 years. It is not something I work on. I just have a lot of self-motivation to get the best out of myself, whether here or in the gym. I am proud [of the fact] that I went out there and left it all out there.
I was always going to leave it out there, everything I had in the tank. I certainly did that. There were a couple of times the match could have gotten away from me and I found a way of hanging in there.”
The highlight was that Wimbledon title in 2002. “It is hard to beat winning. You have worked for your whole life for the opportunity to play the final Sunday at Wimbledon and to have the chance of holding the trophy; nothing compares to that.”
Last Sunday he prepared for the eventuality of defeat. “I sat in the stands of Centre Court and soaked it all up. Knowing this was the last time, I wanted to soak it all up.” No tears, he said. “I was very close, but not quite.”
He has years to reflect on Monday’s heroics. Both he and Nieminen lost their serves twice in the first four games of the final set but as they steadied, Nieminen, was blessed with having opened the serving in the final set. Hewitt was repeatedly obliged to serve to stay in the match. In the 10th game of the set, having already summoned the trainer for the first of two running repairs on his right thigh and toes, Hewitt saved three match points – not by caution but through sheer nerve and bloody-mindedness. One of them involved a goalkeeper-type dive to his left for a winning volley.
“We love you because you’re a fighter,” chanted the Fanatics, who used up much of their four hours of choreographed supportive material. Nieminen was fighting Hewitt, the Fanatics and much of the crowd and to his credit he survived, bided his time another 40 minutes and secured his match point. He now faces the even greater hurdle of Novak Djokovic in the second round.
Though Hewitt has faded, there is optimism about Australian tennis because of players such as Bernard Tomic but also Nick Kyrgios. Acclaimed by the likes of Federer, and the conqueror last year of Rafael Nadal, Kyrgios provided spirited preliminary entertainment on No2 court as he took just under one and a half hours to dispatch the Argentinian Diego Schwartzman. Kyrgios went two sets up – 6-0, 6-2 in 44 minutes – and then selected cruise control, egged on again by the Fanatics.
The carnival mood seemed to affect him and in the third set Schwartzman used his forehand to exploits gaps and opportunities where previously there were none. He broke Kyrgios’s serve in the seventh game but then surrendered his own immediately. Kyrgios finished with a flourish – a 128-mph flat serve that Schwartzman could only parry.
But, for all the showmanship, there is a spiky side to Kyrgios who threatened to stop play in the final set in protest at a line call and then had to explain to whom he directed the epithet “dirty scum”.
He said it was to himself rather than the umpire, Mohamed Lahyani. The self-abuse explanation has not been deployed with such aplomb since the glory days of John McEnroe.
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