World No.1 Novak Djokovic led the tributes after lion-hearted Lleyton Hewitt made the most fitting, if not triumphant, of Wimbledon bows.
Hewitt’s epic 3-6 6-3 4-6 6-0 11-9 first-round loss to Jarkko Nieminen, in which he saved three match points and produced some extraordinary counter-punching, provided a four-hour snapshot of the baseliner’s famous fighting spirit.
“That pretty much sums up my career, I guess,” Hewitt said.
“My mentality, going out there and my never-say-die attitude. I’ve lived for that the 18, 19 years I’ve been on tour.
“As I tell people, it’s not something I work at. I’m fortunate that I have a lot of self-motivation to go out there and get the most out of myself, whether it’s in the gym, behind the scenes, whatever.
“So, yeah, obviously I’m proud of myself that I went out there and left it all out there.”
The sapping defeat, in Hewitt’s 56th career five-setter, denied the 34-year-old a second-round centre-court crack at Djokovic.
But the reigning champion said Hewitt, the youngest men’s year-end world No.1 in history, didn’t need one last hurrah to show why he’ll be remembered among the legends of tennis.
He already reminded fans on Monday.
“He’s one of the greatest competitors we had in sport,” Djokovic said.
“It’s impressive the way he was playing on a high level, competing, coming back, refusing to stop.
“Even after a couple years of being No.1 of the world, winning multiple grand slams, being devoted to Davis Cup, playing for Australia. He’s always been there for them.”
Hewitt will continue being there for Australia, but only as a player until January when he formally calls it quits after making a record 20th consecutive appearance at his home grand slam.
Then, all going to plan, he will continue being there as Australia’s next Davis Cup captain.
Ultimately, though, the father of three now wants to be there – fulltime – for his family.
Looming retirement sits easily with him. He has no regrets.
“When you’re 34, it’s not that hard to deal with it,” Hewitt said.
“Can’t keep playing forever. Tennis, it’s obviously such a physical sport out there. You have to try and play week in and week out to get the best out of yourself and to be able to beat the best players at the big tournaments.
“And my focus has switched. I prefer to spend a lot more time with my kids.
“A lot of the smaller tournaments, I don’t have the same motivation for. So then it’s pretty easy to make that decision.”
He said having Mia, nine, his tennis-mad son Cruz, six, and four-year-old daughter Ava at the All England Club to share his final playing experience made his swansong extra special.
“The kids understand. I think all three of them are old enough,” he said.
“That’s why it’s been great to be able to soak up the atmosphere, especially the last week preparing for the tournament.”
But he will be back, having won the title in 2002 in an experience he said compared to no other in tennis.
“You work your whole life to have an opportunity to play on the final Sunday here in Wimbledon, to have a chance of holding up that trophy,” Hewitt said.
“For me, it’s the home of tennis. I don’t get the same feeling walking into any other grounds in the world, no other tennis court, no other complex, than I do here.
“I do get goosebumps walking into this place.
“I’m so fortunate. One of the greatest things about winning this championship is becoming a member of it.
“For me to be able to go in the members’ locker room four weeks before Wimbledon, in there with some of the older members, sit down and have a cup of tea and a chat, it’s a lot of fun.
“That’s something I can always come back and enjoy over the years.”