Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt etched their names into tennis history in different ways. One is the greatest of all time, the other the youngest No1 in the open era, both are now 32 and falling behind their rivals, begging the question, just when is it time to hang up the Wilson or Yonex as the case may be?
Not for the first time the face of men’s tennis is changing, and while it would be folly to write off such a champion as Roger Federer, of late he just hasn’t been the same, there is simply no other way to write off a straight sets loss to veteran grinder Tommy Robredo.
Whether he can regain his mojo over the ATP off season and come out strong in Australia next summer remains to be seen, but the jury is out on the greatest player of the modern era and where his career goes next, and at 32, the odds are against him ever asserting true dominance ever again.
This isn’t to say that Federer is done but his comeback from a back injury hasn’t gone to plan and 2013 has been his worst year on tour since before his first grand slam title (Wimbledon 2003).
While he has been struggling, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have continued to rise, his long-time rival Rafael Nadal has finally started to come good after struggling with knee injuries and now the three of them are dominating men’s tennis.
Federer’s loss to Robredo in the fourth round of the US Open was certainly no more shocking then his Wimbledon loss to Ukrainian journeyman Sergei Stakhovsky but it is telling and came at a time when it looked like one of his all-time greatest rivals was finally making a revival and allowing Australian fans to believe that maybe there was one last run for Lleyton Hewitt.
Turns out there wasn’t.
Still at 32, the same age as Federer, Hewitt was doing things he hadn’t done in a long time… going for the lines, looking confident and generally hitting out, like he did over a decade ago when he became the youngest men’s No1 in the history of tennis.
His first round win over American, Brian Baker was nothing special, nor was the third round win over Russia’s Evgeny Donskoy, but in the second round against big-hitting Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, himself a former US Open champion and a player very much in-form we saw the old Hewitt, tough, brash, aggressive, tenacious, venomous.
The fourth-set tiebreak he played was among the best eight points of tennis you will ever see from a professional tennis player. He was in total control, del Potro looked mesmerized by the player he grew up idolising, Hewitt kept that form going in the fifth, and while the Argentine wilted it appeared as though ‘Rusty’ might be back.
This of course is nothing new, he hammered Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka, a player of enormous talent and the owner of the best backhand in men’s tennis in round one of Wimbledon before losing to a shockingly in-from Dustin Brown, but Hewitt didn’t lose that match, he was beaten.
What was said but never really demonstrated was that Brown (ATP ranking 171) played the match of his life:
Aces – Brown 21, Hewitt 12. Winners – Brown 74, Hewitt 42, Unforced errors – Brown 22, Hewitt 13. In short amazing stats for both players, but it told the ultimate tale for Hewitt, his game can no longer match a power game when it is being played at the highest level.
So fast forward to the US Open and the fact that after a big win, Hewitt easily dispatched Donskoy and things were looking up for him to dispose of talented but typically non-clutch Russian Mikhail Youzhny and book a quarter final showdown with Novak Djokovic.
His chances of winning that match would have been slim (he hasn’t beaten Djokovic in their last six meetings and only beat him in their first encounter in 2006 at the Open), but he was expected to get there, should have got there, but at 2 sets to 1 and 4-1, Hewitt choked on the moment. 5-2 up in the fifth and he did the same thing.
A man once famous for holding his nerve had clearly lost it. Never the most effective server; at his peak Hewitt could still close out a match and now the sense of occasion had overcome him as the one thing that never seemed to bother him during his better years, his mental game, let him down as he searched for his first quarter final since 2009.
The bizarre thing was he went or broke against a player who is renowned for losing his head at times (Check out this footage for proof) as he pushed to end the match. Maybe the weight of recent history got to him, but this loss sums up why he can never be a major player again…. He simply can’t match it with the big boys in match after match.
And while Hewitt has spent a career hanging tough and grinding his way to the top, pretty much the opposite to the stylish and smooth Federer, they both now face the same problem, how to string wins together over the top guys in seven consecutive matches.
Federer is yet to fall as far as Hewitt, but both struggle to claim the biggest scalps tennis has to offer.
In 2013 Hewitt has admittedly done well against top ten players. He is 3-2, having beaten del Potro twice and Wawrinka once, while also losing to Wawrinka once and losing to Janko Tipsarevic at the Australian Open.
Shockingly Federer is 1-6 against fellow top ten players. His only win coming at the Australian Open over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who he lost to at Roland Garros. Along the way he also lost once to Thomas Berdych, once to Andy Murray and three times to his biggest nemesis Rafael Nadal.
Now admittedly Hewitt didn’t play Federer or any of the other big three this year, but when it comes down to it they’re the men they both have to beat to win a grand slam, as every grand slam since the 2009 US Open (del Potro) has been won by either Federer (2), Nadal (6), Murray (2) or Djokovic (5).
Against those men they have the following recent records:
Federer has lost his last three to Nadal andhasn’t beaten him since 2012. He went down 3-2 in 2012 head-to-head versus Djokovic and and lost three of his last four against Murray
Hewitt has lost his last five against Nadal and his last six to Djokovic, the last time he beat them both (2006) and is 0-1 lifetime against Murray.
If they are struggling to take those scalps now, the big question is, can hey ever again? To win a grand slam they would likely have to beat two of them on their way to a title and while Hewitt just doesn’t have the power, Federer is increasingly lacking the precision or athleticism to mix it with three fantastic physical specimens, going on 33 next August he’s not going to get stronger or fitter, begging the question how much longer can he go?
For Hewitt, it might be time to simply hang up the racket, after all what’s the point if he can’t win the tournaments he covets most?
For Federer, like Pete Sampras (2002 US Open) and Andre Agassi (2003 Australian Open) before him he likely has that one last great run in him, but that simply may be it.
It’s the end of an era in men’s tennis and these two warriors should hang them up before age as is its wont makes fools of them both.