Lleyton Hewitt remains the youngest men's player to achieve the No. 1 world ranking, reaching the top of the list at 20 years and eight months back in 2001. And, at 5-foot-10, he is also the smallest. But it is his longevity and the sheer bigness of his heart that we will most remember.
Hewitt played the final singles match of his illustrious career on the blue floor of Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park on Thursday evening, losing, perhaps fittingly, against fellow undersized overachiever David Ferrer, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.
As expected, the clash was a celebration of Hewitt's career disguised as tennis match, a lovefest confirming he had completed an extraordinary journey that had gradually elevated his status from controversial young punk to Aussie icon.
When a reporter asked Hewitt in his post-match press conference how he felt about his current status as a "national treasure," he replied in typical, dry fashion:
"Yeah, I haven't read anything obviously, but as I said on the court, this month has been awesome," Hewitt said Thursday. "I've loved every minute of it. I've tried to soak it up and enjoy it as much as possible, but still try and go out there and perform and play well and stay focused."
For Hewitt, all the stuff that goes along with being a tennis pro, even the world's top tennis pro, is all well and good. But it's always been about trying to "go out there and perform and play well and stay focused."
This, after all, is a player who, in his first interview at Melbourne Park this year, confessed that what he'll really miss when his playing days are over is the grunt work. The training.
"That's what's pushed me the last few years," he said. "I don't struggle for self-motivation, to get up early and do the hard work that no one sees. There's no crowds or cameras around there. It's just you in the gym or on the practice court. That's one of the things I will miss, not having to go out there and push yourself day in and day out."
That fidelity to training paid off for Hewitt in a big way. He won 30 ATP Tour titles, fifth on the list of active players. Taking full advantage of a seam between eras dominated by Pete Sampras and followed by Roger Federer, Hewitt reached four Grand Slam singles finals and won two, the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002. He also won two ATP Tour year-end singles championships and played on victorious Australian Davis Cup teams in 1999 and 2003.
But Hewitt's greatest accomplishment might have been the most difficult to quantify: the way he shepherded Australia through a dark period when it appeared that the well of talent Down Under had gone dry.
That drought could be attributed partly to Tennis Australia's progressive decision to abandon its grass-court tradition and move the tournament to the hard courts at Melbourne Park starting in 1988. With no hard-court tradition to speak of, the Aussies subsequently struggled to produce players to carry on the winning tradition established by greats like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe.
Pat Rafter was the lone Aussie near the top of the game when 15-year-old Hewitt became the youngest qualifier in Australian Open history in 1997, the same year Rafter won the first of his two Grand Slam singles titles. Rafter would quickly fade as a force in the game, but Hewitt stepped in to assume leadership.
The start was rocky. Hewitt was such a fiery competitor that even his own countrymen often found his in-your-face court manner objectionable. And his straightforward, blunt manner earned him no points in the charisma sweeps. It never appeared to bother him.
By the time Hewitt won Wimbledon in 2002, he was the only Aussie in the year-end ATP top 10. He would get some help in the mission to keep Australian tennis afloat here and there from a player, Mark Philippoussis, who never fulfilled his potential, partly because of injuries. But it was really Hewitt, the quintessential "Aussie battler," who fought, who kept struggling, who continued fighting and bringing out those fans clad in green and gold, chanting "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie ... Oi, Oi, Oi!"
Hewitt, who will now take over as Australia's Davis Cup captain, was a one-man "golden generation." His unabashed patriotism and love of Davis Cup inspired and filled his nation with pride, and fertilized the ground for an exciting new generation that is now emerging as a force in tennis.
It's tempting to say Hewitt will be missed, but the reality is he isn't going anywhere, as U.S. tennis honchos well know. They will have to deal with Hewitt's Davis Cup team this March, in Australia.