When They Were Top of the Mountain

By World Tennis Day Contributor Neil Harman (@Neil_Harman57)

Pete Sampras recalls the climax to the 2001 US Open at Flushing Meadows more than vividly. In his book A Champion’s Mind, Sampras said he was taken aback by the look of his opponent in the final. “He had peach fuzz on his face, with his long blond hair and blue eyes, he looked like a teenage skateboarder or surfing champion. He played with a healthy disdain for etiquette.” Polite Pete.

Lleyton Hewitt was that opponent, a scrawny kid fro Adelaide, South Australia, replete of sinew, resolve, and guttural invective who would go on to lift that Open title, the first of his two grand slams on the way to becoming the top-ranked player in the world two months later, the youngest ever to hold that rarefied position at 20 years and 268 days old. In a remarkable career – probably travelling more miles than anyone else in the game given his country’s geographical isolation - Hewitt would play 878 matches on the ATP tour, winning 30 titles.

When Hewitt steps out for the first time at Madison Square Garden in March for World Tennis Day – that’s right, he’s not been before - it will be in the company of the ‘other’ No.1 who made his mark before the era of Roger Federer seemed to blow every other record out of the water. Andy Roddick is back at the Garden, a place perfectly suited to his character and dynamism. Roddick may have been raised in Omaha, Nebraska, he may live in Austin, Texas, but it was in New York where he first delivered and delivered big.

In the 2003 US Open final in the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Roddick would defeat Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain, sink to his knees and render the press speechless with his words after that triumph: “no more about the future of American tennis, no more!”  Roddick  had contained the pressure, he had lived off the heat of the New York crowd, he was right at home in the biggest tennis home of all time.

If there already wasn’t enough to marvel at given the talents assembled at the Garden for the annual World Tennis Day festivities that mark a special moment in the tennis calendar, the arrivals of Hewitt and Roddick further bolster the imaginative idea of having re-named the contests on this 10th anniversary of the BNP Paribas Showdown as a team contest between The Americas and The World.

Is it not interesting, too, that Roddick and Hewitt will be able to witness at extremely close quarters the talents who may have it in them to bestride the tennis floor as they once did, in Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios? The past and future will be together in one rather neat package.

The feisty Australian and the regular American guy are the final pieces in the MSG jigsaw. They will no doubt have plenty to say about facing each other and their hopes for the relative successes of their two nations on the tennis court that has been dominated since the days their grand slam success came to an end by Europeans – most significantly a Swiss, a Spaniard, a Serb and a Scot.

At their peaks, they were utterly brilliant. Hewitt didn’t have the Roddick serve; Roddick didn’t have the Hewitt footwork; Hewitt didn’t have Roddick’s clubbing force and Roddick didn’t swear and cuss [well not as audibly] like Hewitt. They both had big hearts and enormous determination. And they both believed entirely in themselves, fighting for what they thought was right both on and off the court.

I respected them both, I thought they were brilliant athletes and because they were such forceful individuals. Of course, there were the fall-outs. In his early 20s, when Hewitt was coached by Darren Cahill – who went on to have such an illustrious career coaching Andre Agassi – the pressure in his supporters’ area became too intense and Cahill decided it was time to step away.

I wrote in defense of Cahill; the Hewitt family were enraged and we had a major falling out. A year later, he won the Wimbledon title for the first time and there was a significant rapprochement. We decided to get along. And I’m glad we did for Hewitt would become a hugely significant character on the scene and now, as Australia’s Davis Cup coach, is a standard-bearer and champion for the younger fraternity, not least Kyrgios.

Roddick wanted to follow in his brother John’s tennis-playing footsteps and was intensely focused from an early age, begging his mother to let him have a rebound net in his garage at home in Omaha. “It had springs, you hit the ball and it came right back at you,” he once told me. “I’d spend hours on it, My Mum would ask ‘what did you do today Andy?’ and I said, ‘I beat Lendl, Becker and Edberg.”

Roddick certainly ended up beating a whole host of greats in his time. His nemesis, largely at Wimbledon but on many other courts of the world, was Roger Federer to whom he lost in three grand slam grass-court finals, most crushingly in 2009 when he ought to have led by two sets to love and ended up succumbing 16-14 in the fifth set of a match that lasted over four hours.

He accepted that defeat with defining dignity but could not abide unfairness in the game. I’ll not forget being in Rome in 2011 when he was partnering Mardy Fish in the doubles where they made the final, an unlikely occurrence on clay. But Roddick had a shoulder injury and the pair had to forfeit to fellow Americans, Sam Querrey and John Isner. Andy sent one of the staff to search for me, and told me to follow him through the tunnels of the Foro Italico to the ATP office.

Andy wanted a witness, to make sure someone saw him tear a strip off his own association who had docked him and Fish $31,400 for pulling out of the final just before it had been scheduled, so they could get a flight to Dusseldorf, where organisers were threatening sanctions if they didn’t show up.

“We’re going to have to beg for the money we’ve earned,” Roddick said. “Why should Mardy be punished when I can’t play? Mardy has played the semi-final, he won the match, he earned the money, you can’t take away something he has already done. This is embarrassing for the Tour. The ATP people said they could not make a unilateral decision so I either took a chance with the appeal process or I played with a shoulder that didn’t give us much chance of winning and had a risk for the future.” He won his case.

The sport of tennis is adorned with incredible characters but few have filled the stage with as much desire, drive, and dogged determination as Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt. Their careers sparkled and they made everyone who saw them play move a little bit closer to the edge of their seats. Isn’t that what it’s about?