2002 now looks like a distant spot in the past. And it indeed is. Beyond sitting one decade plus three years back in the mirror, 2002 was a generation ago. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal were all teenagers; Roger Federer was already a top-10 player, but he was far from being that dominant, soul-crushing Swiss that rampaged to 16 major titles in six years. Kei Nishikori, for instance, was only 12 and Project 46, now dusted, sounded more like a secret government base out of a sci-fi movie rather than anything tennis-related.
That’s just examples.
In retrospective, the top-10 seeded players entering the 2002 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Championships were composed almost entirely of former slam winners. Hewitt led the pack. Safin was seeded second. Agassi, Kafelnikov, Sampras and Johansson completed the list, whilst Roger Federer (7th) and Juan Carlos Ferrero (9th) would both join this group in the next year. Exceptions were made for Tim Henman (4th), always a threat on grass, and Guillermo Coria (10th), who, in all unfairness, never claimed his deserved Roland Garros title before injuries killed his career.
But remember when this writer mentioned how Grand Slams could go from a stage of utter dominance to a seed graveyard in a heartbeat – or a missed volley?
Out of the 10 highest seeded players for the third major of the ’02 season, only two made it past the third round: Lleyton Hewitt and Tim Henman.
Hewitt, who entered SW19 as the highest ranked player in the world, had already made a name for himself. The defending US Open winner and three-time defending Queen’s Club champion, he possessed the same Aussie roots as other contemporary countrymen of his, guys like Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis, who also went on to be immensely successful on lawn. But Hewitt was not a big server like Scud or the tour's finest volleyer, like Rafter. Yet, that did not stop him. Not before, and also not at that year’s Wimbledon.
Being the highest seeded man at any given tournament has its perks. Even though players are randomly drawn into the board, topping the sheet is supposed to be a reward. That’s what it was for Hewitt in 2002. The Australian drew then 21-year old Jarkko Nieminen – who only got a seed because Tommy Haas withdrew from the tournament – as his third round seed. He also had Gaston Gaudio (24), a clay specialist, and Nicolas Escudé (16) in his section. For the highest ranked players he could face in the quarterfinals, Roger Federer (7) nowadays cannot be seen as a gift – but remember: before Federer rose in 2003, Hewitt owned their H2H – but Juan Carlos Ferrero (9), Sjeng Schalken (24) (two dirtballers) and Fabrice Santoro (25) might as well.
By means of comparison, Tim Henman’s – who was set and in fact went on to meet Hewitt in the quarterfinals - section had Wayne Ferreira, Ivan Ljubicic (30), Radek Stepanek, Feliciano Lopez and future Wimbledon semifinalists Thomas Johansson (8) and Rainer Schüttler (17).
It's not like Hewitt needed any help though. Back then, he was one of the most feared competitors on tour, a fierce, fiery baseliner on his prime, who emerged as the first youngster capable of deposing old titans like Sampras and Agassi from the top. Yet, he was helped – if his opponent’s lack of competency can be named as such.
Hewitt debuted against world number 47 Jonas Bjorkman, part of Sweden’s last crop of great tennis players and former world number four in singles and number one in doubles. Bjorkman ended up being the highest ranked player the Aussie would face until the quarterfinals, and yet, he didn’t have any trouble getting rid of him: 6/4, 7/5, 6/1.
Meanwhile, another young, unknown player stirred an upset in Hewitt’s quarter. Mario Ancic, then a qualifier, beat Roger Federer in straight sets, sending the Swiss packing in the opening round just one year before the first of five consecutive titles won by Roger at the All England Club. Robredo (20), El Aynaoui (13) also bowed out in the first round in Lleyton’s half, and they were soon joined by eighth-seeded Thomas Johansson, who fell to Andre Sa 12-10 in the fifth. On the other half of the draw, Juan Ignacio Chela (29) and Max Mirnyi (21) also said goodbye to the English crowd.
In the second round, Hewitt faced France’s Gregory Caraz, a qualifier ranked 168th, and once again he cruised: 6/4, 7/6, 6/2, while Jarkko Nieminen – supposedly his third round foe – lost to Julian Knowle and a young Mikhail Youzhny took out Gaudio, 6/4 in the fifth.
Ferrero, Santoro, Ljubicic, Canãs, Koubek, Enqvist, Blake, Agassi, Novak, Todd Martin and Safin also featured on the loss column after all was said and done in the round of 64. They were joined by Pete Sampras, in his very last Wimbledon appearance, whose campaign was halted by Swiss journeyman George Bastl, in one of the sport’s most famous upsets.
As seed kept falling like flies, Hewitt breezed past 95th-ranked Julian Knowle (6/2, 6/1, 6/3) and world number 61 Mikhail Youzhny (6/3, 6/3, 7/5) to reach the quarterfinals without dropping a set, setting a new best run at Wimbledon in the process – surpassing his 4th round effort from 2001.
Entering the second week of the Championships, besides the Aussie, Sjeng Schalken, Tim Henman, Andre Sá, Xavier Malisse, Richard Krajicek, David Nalbandián and Nicolás Lapentti were the last men standing. Only two top-10 seeds, two unseeded players (Krajicek and Sá) and half of the field composed of players seeded 18, 22, 27 and 28.
Ironically enough, that year’s final was to be contested between the highest and lowest surviving seeds entering the quarterfinals.
But to get there, Hewitt had to face Sjeng Schalken before, and the Dutch proved to be his toughest foes of the entire tournament. Despite racing to an early 6/2, 6/2, 2-set lead, Hewitt saw his advantage vanish as Schalken won the next two sets, through a tiebreak and a breadstick. Lleyton, however, rose to the occasion when it mattered the most, breaking the 18th seed one last time, as he served down 5/6 to stay in the match.
Hewitt was back to a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time since his US Open title run. Between him and a Sunday appearance was Tim Henman, who carried upon his shoulders the hopes of millions of Brits who dreamed of a local champion at tennis’ most famous stage. Henman, contesting the last of his four Wimbledon semifinals, had beaten Andre Sá in four the prior round, in the only quarterfinal match to not go five sets (Malisse and Nalbandian needed all sets available to dispatch Krajicek and Lapentti, respectively).
Henman had a partisan crowd; Hewitt had the head-to-head. At the time, the Aussie had won all five meetings against Henman, including denying him twice the Queen’s Club title, in 2001 and only a few weeks prior. And Lleyon denied him once again in front of his home crowd.
7/5, 6/1, 7/5. Precise and fatal.
In retrospective, the 2002 singles final between Hewitt and Nalbandian – two baseliners – had all the elements of a changing of the guard at the highest level of tennis. Only year after the All England Club crowned Goran Ivanisevic in a final match against Patrick Rafter – two players who heavily relied on their serve – the ’02 decider was the first presage of the new era that was about to start: the age of returners and players who could hold their own even without clocking 200 km/h on the speed gun every time he stepped up to serve.
The final was not close, either. Hewitt hoisted the trophy after a 6/1, 6/3, 6/2 rout, losing the same amount of games he did in his third round matchup against Julian Knowle. Thus, on July, 12, 2002, Lleyton Hewitt claimed his 16th career title – and his second and last major.
Though his Wimbledon triumph was indeed Hewitt’s greatest moment and his peak, it could also have been his apotheosis – the moment he separated from the mere mortals and his generation’s greats to become one of the all-time greats, the same way Federer and Nadal did after him. But, in the end, it was his apogee – one’s highest point before the decline.
Having won 16 titles in five seasons after claiming his maiden trophy at Adelaide 1998, Hewitt went on to win only fourteen more, 13 years after. He may have lost the opening round of his title defense campaign in 2003, and dropped out of the top-10 for good only three years later, but 2002 will always be remembered by those who appreciate the game of tennis.
Because that’s when Hewitt put his name atop of a shortlist of generation greats, and that, by itself, is quite the accomplishment.