He may be farewelling the game, but Lleyton Hewitt remains the Pied Piper of Australian tennis until the very end.
As half the nation gets set to tune in to Hewitt’s first-round Australian Open clash with James Duckworth on Tuesday night, the 34-year-old’s awestruck peers are queuing up for tickets.
Hewitt is a warm favourite to extend his 20-year Open career by at least another match, but the reality is his showdown with good mate Duckworth could well be the former world No.1’s swansong to professional tennis.
And no one wants to miss the moment.
Australian No.1 Bernard Tomic planned to hit with Hewitt on Monday and said he’d “absolutely” be courtside for his mentor and Davis Cup captain’s potential last stand.
“Hopefully I can give him a good warm-up,” Tomic said.
“Two Australians are playing. We all want Lleyton to win. It’s going to be an amazing match.
“Then again, James is also Australian. It’s a bit strange, but I think James is also looking at this, if he can win this match, he knocks off Lleyton in his last match in his career, it’s also a big opportunity for him.
“I’m going to be watching it. All of Australia is going to be watching it. It’s going to be a very, very exciting match to watch.”
Eleven years after Hewitt made his memorable run to the final, Nick Kyrgios has assumed the mantle as Australia’s great men’s title hope but he too hoped to see the veteran’s 51st and possibly last match at Melbourne Park.
“Definitely. He’s playing another Aussie. It’s always going to be a little bit fun to watch,” Kyrgios said.
“If I’ve got time, I might duck out there and watch a little bit of it.
“Lleyton, it’s his last-ever tournament. He’s going to be determined to give absolutely everything in the tank.”
Superstars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and Australian women’s No.1 Samantha Stosur have led the tributes to Hewitt in the countdown to the Open.
“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,” said Nadal, who lost twice to Hewitt in Melbourne, including an epic five-set fourth-round tussle during the South Australian’s 2005 charge to the final.
Hewitt’s 20th consecutive Australian Open campaign matches the 20 straight US Open appearances of Americans Jimmy Connors (1970-89) and Stan Smith (1964-83).
Only Andre Agassi, with 21 successive appearances at Flushing Meadows from 1986-2006, can boast more successive tilts at a men’s grand slam event.
“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,” Nadal said.
“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.”
GRAND SLAM SURVIVORS
Consecutive appearances at men’s grand slam championships in the open era (1968-2016)
Andre Agassi – 21 US Opens (1986-2006)
Jimmy Connors – 20 US Opens (1970-89)
Stan Smith – 20 US Opens (1964-83)
LLEYTON HEWITT – 20 Australian Opens (1997-2016)
Guillermo Vilas – 18 French Opens (1972-89)
Roger Federer – 17 Australian Opens (2000-2016)
Ivan Lendl – 16 US Opens (1979-94)
John McEnroe – 16 US Opens (1977-92)
Guillermo Vilas – 15 US Opens (1972-86)