MELBOURNE, Australia | Baseball cap turned backward, pumping himself up with cries of “C’MON!” Lleyton Hewitt fought one last feisty encounter. Then he gathered his three young kids on center court and said farewell.
After a career spent trying to win the Australian Open, the 34-year-old Hewitt had said that this year’s tournament — his 20th attempt — would be his last.
“Lleyton’s Last Stand” as some Australian media have billed it came Thursday in the second round where Hewitt lost to David Ferrer, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4, in a gritty contest that the numbers alone don’t do justice. It included some dramatic tennis, a few expletives — including a verbal volley Hewitt had with the chair umpire — and was capped off by an emotional send-off on Rod Laver Arena.
When the No. 8-ranked Ferrer returned to the court for the winner’s customary post-match interview, he redirected the spotlight to Hewitt.
“Tonight is for him, not for me,” Ferrer said. “Lleyton fights until the last ball. He’s unbelievable.”
Ferrer, who at 33 is just a year younger than Hewitt and has a similar relentless, chase-every-ball style, told the crowd that he once had Hewitt sign a T-shirt for him that now hangs with other tennis memoribilia in his home. “I never had idols. But Lleyton is an idol for me.”
In his younger years, Hewitt was one of the sport’s bad boys who rubbed some players the wrong way. He was known for fist-pumping, chest-thumping bravado and tactless remarks both on and off the court.
While playing James Blake at the U.S. Open in 2001, he made a comment interpreted by some as racist during an on-court tirade. He paid his share of fines for foul language. He angered fans in Adelaide, his hometown, by calling them “stupid” for cheering for his opponent during a match in 2000.
As a young player, Hewitt identified with the movie character “Rocky,” and would cheer himself on by shouting “Come on, Rock!” during matches — a rallying cry that eventually was shortened to “C’MON!”
But his talent was undeniable. At 15, Hewitt was the youngest qualifier in the history of the Australian Open in 1997. In 2001, he won his first Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, defeating Pete Sampras, and then won Wimbledon the following year.
Hewitt held the No. 1 ranking for 80 weeks. He remains the youngest player to have reached the No. 1 spot — which he did in 2001 aged 20 years and 8 months.
He went on to win 29 career titles, including the two majors. He also won the Davis Cup. Hip and foot injuries hobbled him over the past several years and he hasn’t been past the fourth round at a major since the 2013 U.S. Open.
After age and experience mellowed Hewitt, he earned respect for his gutsy tennis and a fighting spirit.
The crowd got to witness one last outburst Thursday, when Hewitt vented frustration over a call at chair umpire Pascal Maria after the seventh game of the last set.
Hewitt shouted at Maria while sitting on his changeover bench in an exchange that also featured slightly more colorful language.
But three games later, when the match was over, Hewitt had a warm exchange with Ferrer at the net, shook hands with Maria and faced an adoring crowd.
“I came out, I gave everything I had, like always. I left nothing in the locker room. That’s something I can always be proud of. My whole career I’ve given 100 percent,” Hewitt said to hearty applause and was then joined on the court by his three children, aged 5, 7 and 10.
Other players joined the tribute with video messages broadcast during the ceremony, included kind words and retirement wishes from Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
“I’d just like to thank everyone,” Hewitt said. “This was the perfect place to finish, playing in front of you guys. I was getting goose bumps out here tonight.”
Hewitt, who has already been named Australia’s Davis Cup captain, doesn’t plan to put down his racket immediately. He returns to the courts Friday in the doubles competition with countryman Sam Groth.