AP Sports Writer
MELBOURNE, Australia — There’s a reason why Lleyton Hewitt could keep tennis fans awake until after 4 in the morning, even when he was playing at home, years after winning Grand Slam titles in far-away New York or London.
Hewitt contested every, single point. If he was smaller or less powerful than his rival across the net, he countered that by tenaciously chasing, retrieving and grinding opponents down.
His relentless intensity and never-give-in attitude had critics bristling when he emerged as a brash, up-and-coming teen wearing his cap back-to-front. But they later applauded him when he matured and slightly mellowed into a tennis elder.
Hewitt’s 20th bid to win the Australian Open ended in a 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 second-round loss to eighth-seeded David Ferrer on Thursday night, his last singles match as a pro. Typically, it was a feisty affair. He launched a verbal volley at chair umpire Pascal Maria after the seventh game of the last set when he was angered by foot-fault calls at one end.
“Left nothing in the locker room. That’s something I can be proud of,” Hewitt, who turns 35 next month, told the crowd. “My whole career, I’ve given 100 percent.”
Nobody would argue with that. Before Roger Federer won the first of his record 17 Grand Slam titles, at Wimbledon in 2003, Hewitt had won the 2001 U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 2002. They were roughly the same age. Hewitt was the youngest man to hold the No. 1-ranking, aged 20 years and 8 months in November 2001. He held top spot for a total of 80 weeks.
Federer said Hewitt helped revolutionize the sport.
“Yeah, possibly,” Hewitt replied in a matter-of-fact response when Federer’s assessment was mentioned. “I guess guys playing from the back of the court obviously started believing once they saw that I was able to do it, especially on all surfaces.
“It was really kind of the total changing of how tennis was played in a lot of ways, especially on grass.”
Apart from Andrew Agassi, Hewitt said, “there wasn’t a lot of guys that would stay back and play from the back of the court.”
“A lot of guys learnt or believed that they could do it playing that way. That was probably my biggest thing,” he said. “Obviously the other guys came in, and Roger and that took it to a totally new level.”
The so-called Big Four — Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — have become dominant, while Hewitt has struggled with hip and foot injuries, and has increasingly reduced his workload to the point where the Grand Slam tournaments and the majors were his only real focus.
Murray, who has won two majors, the Davis Cup and reached four finals at the Australian Open, said he learned a lot about tennis by watching Hewitt
After his 6-0, 6-4, 6-1 second-round win over Sam Groth on Thursday extended his unbeaten streak against Australians to 17, Murray took time to pay tribute to Hewitt, who was scheduled to play the next match on Rod Laver Arena.
“He was someone I loved watching growing up. His attitude toward competition — I loved,” Murray said. “He fought, well, fights extremely hard to this day. He still has the same passion to win.
“He was an idol for me — I actually named one of my dogs after him because he was someone that I loved growing up.”
In other matches, 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka had a 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 win over 37-year-old qualifier Radek Stepanek, joining No. 10 John Isner, No. 13 Milos Raonic and No. 16 Bernard Tomic in the next round.
Fernando Verdasco lost to Dudi Sela, a surprising defeat coming two days after he beat 14-time major winner Nadal.
Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza , seeded No. 3, No. 7 Angelique Kerber, No. 9 Karolina Pliskova, No. 15 Madison Keys and No. 20 Ana Ivanovic had second-round wins in the women’s draw, while two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka continued her strong recent run.
Hewitt, who played his first Australian Open in 1997, never achieved his ambition of winning the national championship. He was involved in some memorable matches at Melbourne Park, though, including a run to the 2005 final, which he lost to Marat Safin. In 2008, he played Marcos Baghdatis in a third-round match that started before midnight and finished at 4:34 a.m. There was still a big crowd in Rod Laver Arena when he won it.
“I felt like this was the perfect place to finish,” Hewitt said Thursday, sharing the court with his three children. “A couple of the roars during the match tonight was as loud as I’ve ever played in front of. I was getting goosebumps at times.”
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