Hewitt praised by his Aussie heroes at Tennis Hall of Fame ceremony, a tribute



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Hewitt praised by his Aussie heroes at Tennis Hall of Fame ceremony, a tribute

Two-time grand slam champion Lleyton Hewitt was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) on Saturday, after the Infosys Hall of Fame semifinals, in a ceremony watched on by legends Stan Smith, Tony Roche, Andy Roddick, Tracy Austin, Gigi Fernandez, among others.

Emceed by Tennis Channel’s host Brett Haber with speeches by ITHF CEO Todd Martin and Stan Smith, it was a celebration of Hewitt’s grit, underdog spirit, the Davis Cup and the “loyalty” that Hewitt valued so much.

It was a serendipitous venue considering that the grounds of ITFH was where the 41-year-old Australian won his last tournament, the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships (as it was known then) in 2014.

The impeccably-maintained grass courts also served as the only place where Hewitt won the tournament title in both singles and doubles, fulfilling a lifetime career achievement. The inductee ceremony also took place on the exact court where the two-time grand slam champion played his initial match at the site.

The Tennis Hall of Fame had special meaning for Lleyton Hewitt, which the proud Aussie talked about in his speech. In true die hard fashion, the fiery player, also refused to shorten his speech and warned the captive audience that it was going to be long.

No one minded, though. The celebration was full of tributes from pivotal individuals who saw so much potential in a scrappy, testy, impassioned tennis player from Adelaide, South Australia. Lleyton Hewitt was honored by plenty of his ‘mates,’ family, peers, and fans who paid tribute to his celebrated career that spanned 18 years.

The two legends who were there from the beginning

Two seminal Australian legends gave Hewitt an early opportunity: Sydney’s 24-slam champion (including seven in singles) John Newcombe and 16-time slam winner Tony Roche.

As Captain and Coach for the Australian Davis Cup (and multiple Davis Cup winners themselves), they saw in Hewitt the kind of plucky hunger for the game that inspired them to pick him for the Australian Davis Cup team in 1999.

Both tennis statesmen talked about their first impression of the youthful Hewitt in a funny, charming tribute video played during the ceremony.

“I remember the first meeting I had with Lleyton was at a charity event in Adelaide.

He must have been about 12 or 13, and I was very impressed with his game, even at that early age,” said Tony Roche. “But I was more impressed with his mullet haircut, really. All the Adelaide kids seemed to have these great mullet haircuts.

But yeah, Lleyton, you could tell was going to be something special”.

(Side note, Hewitt rocked the mullet before reigning Open champion Sam Smith made it famous again.) Newcombe—who Hewitt always called “Newc”—mentioned an anecdote about Hewitt’s obsession with the underdog character “Rocky Balboa”.

Later fans would eventually coin the nickname ‘Rocky’ for Hewitt due to all his emphatic “C'mon Balboa” shouts during matches.

“In 2000, we played the finals against Spain and Lleyton on day one had to play Albert Costa and it was an unbelievable match.

It was a war out there. And Lleyton finally led 5-4 in the fifth set, serving. Came around, got down love-40 on his serve and went to the back of the court and was yelling at the ground. And everybody wanted to know why is he yelling at the ground? And what he was doing was he loved the Rocky movies.

Rocky was his hero and he used to put himself into that other person. So, he was yelling at the ground, ‘Come on, Rocky. Get up, Balboa. Fight, fight, come on Rock.’ And he came out and won five straight points in a row.

Unbelievable effort. “And we're proud, Lleyton, to have known you and to be able to spend some time with you. It was an honor for us”.

Roche also had the pleasure of surprising Hewitt the night before while the Hall of Fame inductee was out to dinner with friends and family, who was not expecting Tony Roche to be at the ceremony in person.

A passion for Davis Cup

Mentored by Newcombe and Roche, Hewitt’s debut with the Australian Davis Cup team in 1999 culminated into a match made in heaven, resulting in a win for his country in his first year. He defeated Hall of Fame CEO Martin in that momentous first outing, who graciously smiled when Hewitt reminisced about the win.

Davis Cup proved pivotal to Hewitt’s career, who took Australia to another win in 2003 and still holds several Australian Davis Cup records including most wins, most singles wins, most ties played and most years played.

It’s no wonder that the proud Australian was asked to captain the team himself in 2016.

“There was something special about that competition for me. Tennis is such an individual sport for so many months of the year, and I think that's why Davis Cup was so important to me.

It was my way of playing AFL football but in the sport of tennis. "Standing side by side with your teammates, your captain, your coach, and knowing that you're going into battle for something more important than just yourself”.

A special connection with Darren Cahill

Donning his newly gifted ITFH blazer, he thanked his great coach Darren Cahill, who penned a column on the crucial moment when an eager 12-year-old Lleyton Hewitt knocked on his door.

Both from Adelaide, Cahill recalled a steely-eyed Hewitt asking, “Hi, I’m Lleyton, are we going to play?” Cahill penned a tribute to Hewitt in an ATP column, “My Point,” about the evolution of the player.

“’Damn, this kid is good. He’s going to be something special,’” Cahill remembered telling his girlfriend (now wife) at the time. “This was a rare day when you just know”.

A tennis great who put everything on the court when he played

“The Hall of Fame seemed like something that was so far away from me,” said Hewitt during the ceremony.

“It was never something I ever thought about as a player, and it was always I thought for the people that were my idols growing up and the absolute legends of the sport. "It's been an unbelievable experience for me, the whole buildup the last couple of years, but especially this weekend.

I think it's so fitting for me to be inducted here in Newport at such a special place”.

Hewitt still holds the record in the ATP as the youngest ranked No. 1 at age 20, the same year he defeated ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras in straight sets in the 2001 U.S.

Open final. Hewitt retained his top ranking the following year with the help of a dominant win over David Nalbandian at the 2002 Wimbledon final.

“I gave 100 percent every time I stepped on the court,” Hewitt said.

“And it wasn’t just the match court — it was the practice court as well”.

The fierce competitor won 616 matches, 30 singles titles, three doubles titles, and back-to-back ATP Tour Finals in 2001-2002.

Lleyton Hewitt is now an International Tennis Hall of Fame member, where memorabilia such as his Davis Cup jacket and racquet are on display in the museum.