Hewitt counts down to Open swansong

Lleyton Hewitt admits he’s become a little embarrassed by the fanfare as his seemingly endless summer farewell tour winds its way to Melbourne Park for a record 20th straight Australian Open tilt.

“The lap of honour or whatever that was at the end, I didn’t know that was happening. That was a bit different,” a sheepish Hewitt said after being asked to high-five fans at Allphones Arena following his Fast4 appearance in Sydney on Monday night.

Hewitt’s hit-and-giggle with Rafael Nadal and Nick Kyrgios followed his one last Hopman Cup act in Perth and an exhibition match with Sam Groth in Hobart.

The former world No.1 was also scheduled for more friendlies on Tuesday night in Adelaide against Fernando Verdasco and Marin Cilic before finally getting down to the more serious business of preparing for his Open swansong.

“But I guess it’s the last time and I get to say thanks to the fans,” he said.

“I’ve had so much support here in Australia and it’s a great way to show my thanks to them.”

At just 15 and as the youngest qualifier in Australian Open history, Hewitt’s legendary journey began so long ago that he claims he can barely remember.

“I was pretty excited. After qualifying, I felt like I earned it,” Hewitt said.

“I got a wildcard into the qualifying event and went out and won three matches.

“Playing against Sergi Brugera, that was pretty special. He was a guy who was a big name, he won a couple of French Open grand slams. I learned a lot from that match.

“At the time, he was kind of the Nadal of that generation with how he hit the ball and the spins and on the old Rebound Ace courts, I’d never seen a ball bounce so much.

“It was a good eye opener for me.”

Just as Hewitt’s entire Open career since has been an eye opener for those following.

There’ve been countless twists and turns – but never a short cut – in 20 memorable years.

From midnight starts and near-dawn finishes to signature five-set comebacks, injury fightbacks and the bitter Argy bargie with arch-rivals Juan Ignacio Chela and David Nalbandian during his epic run to the 2005 title match.

While the baseline warrior ultimately fell short in four gripping sets against Marat Safin, Hewitt’s charge to the final will forever be the stuff of Open folklore.

After taking out former finalist Arnaud Clement in the first round, the sport’s youngest-ever year-end world No.1 was mocked and mimicked by American James Blake before having the last laugh in a spirited comeback win from a set and service break down.

He was spat at by Chela in another spiteful four-setter in round three and stretched to the limit by Nadal in a fourth-round classic.

Refusing to give in to a hip flexor injury, Hewitt battled back from two sets to one down to deny Nadal 7-5 3-6 1-6 7-6 6-2 in a courageous performance that Nadal still hasn’t forgotten.

“I was lucky enough to play a couple of times around the world against him but, especially here, it was very special,” the Spaniard said on Monday night.

“He’s just a huge example for me and I think for the kids and everybody. He should be a reference and an inspiration for a lot of new generations.

“What he did was just amazing because he had amazing success when he was so young, almost a kid, and then he had a lot of injuries and he kept fighting until the end.

“He keep enjoying the sport, kept showing the passion on court every time he was healthy enough to keep on competing and that’s something great.”

Another five-setter followed as Hewitt bumped and barged his way past Nalbandian in a quarter-final thriller before out-gunning Andy Roddick to make his one and only final in Melbourne.

While there was no was fairytale triumph, Hewitt has continued entertaining fans for another decade, never more so than in 2008 when the former US Open and Wimbledon champion saw off 2006 runner-up Marcos Baghdatis in an extraordinary fourth-round match that finished at 4.34 in the morning.

For all his grit and heroics, though, Hewitt never reached his Holy Grail in Melbourne.

His charge to the 2005 final marked the only time in 19 attempts that Hewitt has ventured beyond even the fourth round of his beloved home slam.

But whether he endures an eighth first-round defeat or embarks on an unlikely eighth second-week run, the 34-year-old father of three is vowing to savour his final Open experience.

“I’ll just sort of let it happen. I enjoy what I do but, at the same time, I want to push myself and get the most out of it,” Hewitt said.

Sharing the moment with his tennis-mad seven-year-old son Cruz is a particular priority.

“It’s pretty special. He’s at an age where he can remember all of it,” Hewitt said.

“I think he knows it’s my last tournament. I don’t know if he understands retirement.

“I’ll try to have him next week as part of it for me as well.”

Nadal says with Hewitt “anything can happen” in what shapes as an emotional exit from the game, but knows one thing for certain.

“He has the motivation to play,” Nadal. “Then always it depends a bit on the draw, but for sure he’s going to fight for everything.”

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