For a player as prolific as Lleyton Hewitt, setting new tennis records can almost pass without notice.
Still, you have to pause and appreciate the one he’ll be setting at Australian Open 2014 - 18 consecutive appearances in his home Grand Slam event. Try as he might to be nonchalant about that milestone, even Hewitt himself admits it’s something special.
“At the moment it’s just another number while I’m still trying to play and compete against the best guys but obviously to play 18, it’s pretty remarkable,” Hewitt said yesterday at the AAMI Classic, Kooyong.
“When you first start out, you’re happy to play just one or two main draws as a teenager. To play them all straight, as well, is an amazing accomplishment and something that when I do finally retire I’ll be pretty proud of.”
Indeed, it’s a rich memory bank the Aussie is amassing, stretching all the way back to 1997 when he set one of his first records in qualifying as a 15-year-old. It’s not surprising the ever-passionate Hewitt can recall his first Australian Open experience in vivid detail.
“When you first start out, you’re happy to play just one or two main draws as a teenager … I was the youngest player ever to qualify for the Australian Open and (it was) something that I was pretty proud of,” said Hewitt, who faced 1994 French Open champion and then world No.64, Sergei Bruguera.
“To play a guy that’s won the French Open in the first round as well … it was great.”
Naturally, there have been both highs and lows in an event he’s now been playing for close to two decades but Hewitt has progressed to the Australian Open’s fourth round or better on seven occasions.
Most memorable for the two-time Grand Slam champion and former world No.1 was finishing runner-up to Marat Safin in 2005, the Aussie overcoming David Nalbandian, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick in his best Melbourne Park performance.
“That’s probably the biggest (highlight). That whole tournament, it was like riding a massive wave, basically, out there.
“It was a dream come true, obviously, to make it to the final Sunday of the Australian Open. Something I’ve always worked so hard for and I had a really tough draw that year as well … It was amazing to have the weight of a nation right behind you.”
That home support was something Hewitt also experienced in his most recent career highlight – defeating Roger Federer in a three-set final in Brisbane to claim his 29th career title, and seventh on home soil.
Hewitt’s first title since he claimed Halle in June 2010 (interestingly, he also beat Federer in that final) provided a priceless confidence boost as he started another new season in his long career.
“It’s great, obviously playing Rog’,” Hewitt said. “He’s a quality player and it was nice to play him in a final as well because that’s when the best players stand up and play their best tennis. So to beat Roger in a final means more than ever.”
At the same time, Hewitt isn’t placing pressure on himself in his 18th Australian Open. Having overcome career-threatening injuries, including multiple surgeries in recent years, he relishes the opportunity to simply compete at Melbourne Park.
“Every match is tough, so being not seeded as well, you come into any of the seeded guys in the first couple of rounds,” Hewitt said. “It’s been a dream since I was eight (or) nine years old, so for me to still be out there competing …I’m thrilled just to be out there.”
Thrilled, too, to be setting such a positive example to his young countrymen. Just a few weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, Hewitt became the top-ranked Australian male player, at world No.43, following his Brisbane triumph.
Australia’s most prolific Davis Cup player and the Newcombe Medalist for 2014, Hewitt makes no secret of his desire to see younger Australian players emulating – or even bettering – his achievements. His passion, he says, has always been unwavering but now it’s expanding in other ways.
“I’ve always been pretty passionate. About Davis Cup especially,” he pointed out. “I guess the older you get though, it’s about trying to help out some of the younger guys as well and get them and what it means to play for Australia.
“Obviously I’m not going to be around forever playing and we need those guys to stand up and take over as well. It’s trying to instill that into them and what it means to play for the green and gold. I think that’s the thing that I’m trying to do at the moment more than anything.”
In some ways, you have to feel for the players who are following Hewitt. Still, if they’re concerned about the huge shoes they’ve been left to fill, they need only look back at what that talented 15-year-old went on to achieve.
It was impressive enough for Hewitt to make his mark so early; for it to become such an enduring one is undeniably inspirational.