My dad used to tell me, ‘it’s okay if you win or if you lose – unless you lose.’ While he was mostly joking, his sentiment nicely explains an expectation, a tone that exists in competitive sports today. Winning is the top priority – sportsmanship is nice, but not at the expense of number one.
With this sentiment, though, comes an unfair double standard to which many athletes are held – especially in country-club sports like tennis. Leave it all on the court – but be sure not to celebrate too loudly in the process or the tennis community will condemn you.
Lleyton Hewitt, Australia’s best professional tennis player since Pat Rafter, drives a lot of people nuts. From former rivals on tour (Coria, Nalbandian, Chela) to hometown fans in Australia, Hewitt gets a lot of hate.
He is brash. Passionate. Gritty. He fights like a cornered dog. His game-style and physique require such attributes to succeed at the top of the sport. It’s backwards, then, that these same qualities necessary for him to compete at this level turn so many tennis fans against him.
From an early age, competitive athletes are ingrained with this idea that you earn respect and success by giving every ounce of effort you have towards winning. Let’s run through a few platitudes that create this culture: Leave it all out there. Give it everything you have. If you ain’t cheatin, you ain’t tryin. Winners don’t quit. Nice guys finish last. All is fair in love and war. Etc etc.
Lleyton Hewitt embodies this approach. Through blood, sweat or tears, he just wins. For 17 years, Hewitt has maximized his potential by leaning on his workmanlike approach to produce a historic career. He is an equal – a peer – to the greatest tennis players ever.
Later this month, tennis fans will have one last chance to see Lleyton Hewitt do what he does best – compete. He will play the 2016 Australian Open and retire to a role as head of Australia’s Davis Cup team.
Hewitt’s success started early when he won the US Open in 2001, crushing Pete Sampras in straight sets. He went on to win Wimbledon in 2002, reach the finals of the 2004 US Open and the 2005 Australian Open. At 20, he became the youngest player ever to reach the top of the rankings.
Hewitt is small. His serve is comparatively weak. His groundstrokes are slow. While he hasn’t threatened for major titles in recent years, he has still managed to produce successful seasons, logging over 600 wins, 30 titles and over $20.7 million in prize money. He has earned these numbers without the physical weapons the vast majority of his peers possess.
Hewitt has out-fought the field for almost two decades. To succeed in a sport dominated by bigger, stronger and more naturally gifted athletes, he has relied on attributes that also landed him in GQ’s Top 10 Most Hated Athletes in 2006.
Lleyton will more than likely bow out after a match or two in Australia. But I will definitely tune in to for one last chance to see the ultimate competitor leave it all on the court one last time. Tennis fans everywhere should tune in and tip their caps in respect.