WASHINGTON, January 28, 2012—In the past decade, the three biggest tennis story lines have involved Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and their prolonged dominance of the game. At the core is the supplanting of one player by one of the other two, as each takes his place as the predominant force.
One story has Federer running roughshod over men’s tennis, except for the French Open, where Nadal consistently won.
Then comes the breakthrough whereby Nadal wrests control of the tennis world away from Federer, Grand Slam by Grand Slam. Nadal eventually completes his career slam at the 2010 US Open by topping Djokovic.
Finally, there is the hysteria that occurrs when Djokovic suddenly launches himself ahead of both Federer and Nadal, taking the number one ranking in July of 2011.
When considering pure dominance, a surface reading of the record books shows a world in which Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi reigned as the last great American male tennis stars, but are now to be supplanted by the Federer Era.
During the 2012 Australian Open, Lleyton Hewitt finally reminded the world who it was who held the number one ranking for seventy-five weeks, from November 2001 to April 2003, the eighth-longest reign ever.
Ranked 130th in the world, Hewitt made it into this year’s Australian Open by wild-card, a common tale for any former star playing in his home country’s Slam. It’s a tale that often comes to an end in the first round, and if not there, the second.
This time around, however, Hewitt breezed through a four-setter to get to the second round, proceeding to move up two–sets-to-one on rival Andy Roddick. Hewitt then prevailed by that margin when Roddick withdrew with an injured hamstring.
A couple of days later, Hewitt overwhelmed rising Canadian star Milos Raonic in the third round, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3.
Before bowing out to Djokovic in the fourth, Hewitt managed to win a set, a small gesture that serves to remind his countrymen in attendance of the long, court-crossing, baseline-to-baseline rallies that propelled him to the 2001 US Open crown and the 2002 Wimbledon title.
This is not to say that one should be crazy enough to think that Hewitt will again reach a semblance of the heights he surmounted at the turn of the century. Instead, his performance during the past two weeks is a reminder of the brief two-year period before one man took over tennis.
Every player needs a challenger and Hewitt became Federer’s primary direct challenger after the Swiss player started his run of major titles.
From the 2004 Australian Open to the 2005 US Open, Hewitt played in seven of eight possible majors. In every single match, he lost to the eventual champion, who in all but two cases was Federer.
Looking towards the future, it is exremely unlikely that Hewitt will ever again be a force on the ATP tour. For now, he has left the future of Australian tennis squarely in the hands of teenager Bernard Tomic. Last year, Tomic, while just 18, became the youngest Wimbledon quarter-finalist in 25 years.
Hewitt’s performance serves as a reminder of a period of flux. For the optimistic it is also a reminder that sports hegemony will always break.
This tennis triumvirate will also fall, as the American-dominated men’s tennis team did twelve years ago.
Lleyton Hewitt will not be the victor when it does fall, but the mere fact of his continued career should serve as a talismanic indicator that there will still be a game after Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic step down.
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