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Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Buzz: Why does Hewitt still play?

By Greg Garber and Matt Wilansky
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- He had kept his cool on a simmering day, but now, when Tomas Berdych's forehand found the net, Lleyton Hewitt launched into his trademark bellow: "Come on!"

Soon, the 33-year-old Aussie was jawing with the chair umpire at Arthur Ashe Stadium and raising a fist toward his supportive box. Thirteen years ago, he won the whole thing here, but there will be no retro encore in 2014. Hewitt went quietly Wednesday in the first round of the US Open 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, his first straight-sets loss here in eight years.

When Hewitt left the court, he executed a 360-degree spin while waving to the appreciative crowd. It didn't have the feel of Andy Roddick's 2012 departure at Wimbledon, which signaled his retirement, but the question looms.   

Lleyton Hewitt
Lleyton Hewitt had not lost a straight-sets match at the US Open since Andy Roddick defeated him in 2006.

That Hewitt is still viable, particularly considering the considerable mileage on his tires, is rather remarkable.

The chronically red-faced Australian finished as the ATP World Tour's No. 1 player in 2001 and 2002, the years he won the US Open and Wimbledon, respectively. Similarly, Roddick would slip into the pre-Federer void and win a major and the year-end No. 1 before they became the almost exclusive property of the elegant Swiss champion.

Since then, it has been a bloody struggle -- clearly one that suits Hewitt's relentless personality and approach to the game. After finishing as a top-10 player five years out of six, he has remained a fixture in the top 100, missing only once, in 2011. There was toe surgery in 2012, foot surgery (2011) and hip surgery (2008) before that, not to mention a dizzying array of injuries.

And today, even with whispers of retirement in the air, Hewitt is still bringing it in a modest way. He has won 19 of 34 matches -- and two titles, in Brisbane and Newport.

Our Baseline Buzz crew, ESPN.com tennis editor Matt Wilansky and senior writer Greg Garber, offer this appreciation of the Aussie battler.

Come on!

Greg Garber: Why does it sometimes takes a decade, the near-end of a career, to fully appreciate a player like this? If you weren't a fan back in the day, I can see how some might find Hewitt difficult to love. He's a hustler who for a spell had the best return of serve in the game. I'm not saying it's1991 all over again, but wouldn't it have been fun to see Hewitt put a few wins together like Jimmy Connors did in getting to the semifinals here at the age of 39?

Matt Wilansky: Hewitt's an acquired taste for sure. But the antipathy toward him is more than justified. I was on the court 13 years ago during Hewitt's infamous spat with the chair umpire in a third-round match against James Blake. Although Hewitt didn't directly spew any racial epithets that day, the innuendo seemed pretty clear. (Hewitt demanded that a black chair umpire be moved after he called two foot faults on the Aussie. "Look at him," Hewitt said, pointing at the linesman. "And look at him," pointing at Blake. "You tell me what the similarity is.") Hewitt vehemently denied racism, but he was lambasted by media and fans.

Greg Garber: Still, his sustained consistency has helped to overshadow that nasty chapter in Hewitt's life. This is his 62nd career major, tying him with Roger Federer for the most among active men. His first Slam? The 1997 Australian Open, when he became the youngest man ever to qualify for a major at the age of 15 years, 11 months. That's quite a run. Think CiCi Bellis will be playing (and winning titles) 18 years from now?

Matt Wilansky: Considering Bellis wasn't born until two years after Hewitt made his Grand Slam debut, the odds aren't as bad as you think. Seriously, though, take away the game's Big Three, and no player in today's game has more than Hewitt's 30 titles. I don't know that Hewitt's career would have turned out tremendously different had Federer chosen a career in skiing or something, but he probably would have another Slam or two on his résumé. But Hewitt deserves a lot of credit as one of the first true modern-day counterpunching players able to succeed. Look at what he did to Pete Sampras in the 2001 US Open final.

Greg Garber: Ah, the glory days . . . All those injuries have robbed Hewitt of his once formidable speed. Berdych's bigger strokes -- the ball sounded so much more lethal when it came off his racket -- left Hewitt scrambling from side to side. And, by leaving too many balls in the middle of the court, Hewitt created gaps he simply couldn't close. He can still return serve, but his offerings are no longer enough to beat top-10 players. Sitting out there, we saw him hit a first serve at 86 mph and a second at 82.

Matt Wilansky: Which was about as effective as Serena's offerings during her Wimbledon doubles match in early July. All things considered, who do you think would win a match between Serena and Hewitt right now? The Aussie clearly is on his final legs, but to this day, his enthusiasm for the game has never waned. He is one of the great fighters, despite his long history of injuries. Sure, some things have changed: His sleeves are longer and his shorts are shorter. But as we saw early on in the second set against Berdych, his spirited conversations with chair umpires remains as robust as ever.

Greg Garber: As a cynical younger scribe, I used to wonder why players played past their prime. As my kids grew older, I enjoyed sharing my work with them and bringing them to various sports events. Roger Federer and his wife, Mirka, seem to delight in bringing their 5-year-old twin girls on the road. At this year's Wimbledon, you and I were having breakfast on High Street when Hewitt walked in with his three kids -- daughters Mia Rebecca (8) and Ava Sydney (3) and son Cruz (5). That's when I knew he wasn't going to retire this year. I enjoy watching him play, and he should play as long as he enjoys it.