By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
I’m not going to lie, I have become a bit of a Lleyton Hewitt fan over the past few years. Few people in tennis fight as hard as he does every single point. He has talent, yes, but what gets him through matches on the tennis court is energy and momentum. He hasn’t had the ability to just beat other players on talent alone for a few years now. When he is playing uninspired, he can lose to just about anyone. But when he finds a reason to fight and grabs on to it, he can still play one of the highest levels of tennis on tour.
We watched Hewitt play Novak Djokovic on the biggest of stages twice last year. The first was in the fourth round of the Australian Open when Djokovic actually looked unbeatable. Hewitt was being dominated early but rode the crowd to actually take the third set. The second time was at the Olympics, where Hewitt actually won the first set but could never really pull ahead in the second set. Both of these times, Hewitt was playing tennis on a level equal to the best players in the world.
So why isn’t Hewitt still a top player? Why is his ranking just barely inside the top 100? In short, Hewitt is not so young anymore. His body can no longer keep up with what his mind and heart want him to do. Fatigue sets in much earlier in tournaments and matches. Once he’s tired, he can no longer get to the ball in time to hit his crisp, accurate shots. His form is a little forced and errors start flying everywhere. But before that point, his game is pretty much just as clean as it was 15 years ago.
Which brings me to the reason that the upcoming 4 weeks should be the most important of Hewitt’s year. The Indian Wells and Miami Masters tournaments offer Hewitt something that no other tournaments on tour offer. It’s a Grand Slam format—with a break in between each of the rounds, but it’s only best-of-three. It is the best of both worlds for Hewitt. It gives him the opportunity to take a day off between matches so that fatigue won’t kill him early in each match. And it’s only best-of-three sets, which means that he is not out there for at least two hours in each match.
Over the past few years, we have seen Hewitt play in tough matches. We have seen him push others to five sets. And we have seen him have to come back from tiring matches and attempt to do it again the next day. I have absolutely nothing against Hewitt when I say that his body just can’t do it anymore. He can’t play for 3 hours then come back two days later. He can’t play a tough three-setter then come back the next day. But what he can do, and what he should concentrate on doing, is playing at his absolute best in the two tournaments that don’t force him to do either of those things.
Some have begun referring to Indian Wells as the “fifth Slam”. It is certainly the tournament that has tried to hardest in recent years to put itself a step above the other Masters tournaments. But for Lleyton Hewitt in the next two weeks, it has to be the only Slam. It is his best opportunity to make a great run at a big tournament. He needs to take it because he’s not going to have so many more chances.