It was perhaps perfectly fitting that Lleyton Hewitt’s final loss came at the hands of a player exhibiting all the traits that have defined the Australian’s storied career.
Under lights at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday night, David Ferrer banished Hewitt from the tournament with a clinical 6-2 6-4 6-4 second-round victory, thus drawing the curtain on a career that featured two Grand Slam titles, the world No.1 ranking and a staggering 20 consecutive Australian Open appearances.
The moments that followed Hewitt’s final backhand, which landed wide of the sideline, were touching. At the net, Ferrer intimated to Hewitt that he wished to swap shirts. Hewitt gave an emotional speech thanking fans for their support, before being joined on court by his three children. Legends and contemporaries Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray provided heart-felt video messages that were beamed into the area. Nadal described him as an inspiration. Murray said Hewitt was an idol of his when he was growing up.
“Out on the court, obviously you got so many things going through your head,” Hewitt said.
“You're trying to soak it up as much as possible out there one last time. It was an unbelievable atmosphere out there. A couple of the roars during the match tonight was as loud as I've ever played in front of. I was getting goosebumps at times.
“Obviously just watching the video and hearing those great players talk about you in that light, you know, was pretty emotional … It's sort of a strange feeling because you're obviously disappointed not to keep going, but obviously proud of everything we've done as well.”
But perhaps the most revealing statement came from Ferrer himself. Interviewed on court afterward, he described a “museum” in his home, in which a signed shirt of Hewitt’s resided. It was the only piece of tennis-related memorabilia that made the cut.
Before the match, Ferrer said: “He's a mirror for me. I remember when I was younger, my game was similar. It's not like he was my idol, because I don't have an idol, but it's similar to idol.”
Indeed, the similarities between the two men coming into this match were compelling. Hewitt and Ferrer – separated in age by just 14 months and turning pro within two years of one another – are lauded as two of the grittiest fighters in the game. Their foot-speed, dogged counterpunching abilities, fitness levels, excellent returning skills, intensity, focus and concentration have been cornerstones of their games.
The difference is that while Hewitt’s major successes were packed into the first half of his career as a youngster, Ferrer has flourished in the back half of his own. As Hewitt has declined over the years – he currently sits 300 places behind Ferrer in the rankings – the Spaniard has finished seven of the past nine seasons in the top 10, including the last six straight.
This point of difference in their career trajectories was apparent when they met on Thursday night. The eighth seed basically beat the wildcard at his own game. Except a slightly more modernised, intense version of it. Ferrer hit heavier and with more penetration, played more aggressively, and controlled the centre of the court.
Sure, Hewitt fought like hell, as he was always going to do. The evidence of that came in the epic eighth game of the second set, which extended more than 10 minutes and nine deuces, and featured seven break points to Hewitt. Yet he couldn’t convert them.
The dips in Ferrer’s level were fewer and further between – he escaped with the second set, broke early in the third, and despite a momentary Hewitt fightback when the Australian broke to level at 3-3 and send the crowd into a frenzy, Ferrer quickly snuffed out any hopes of a revival.
“He's a quality player,” Hewitt said. “He didn't really give me a lot of opportunities out there tonight. All my service games were really hard to hold the whole time. The small opportunities I got on his, he didn't give me any cheap points. But that's why he's had a long and successful career. He's been awfully close to winning a major.”
Australia, and the rest of the tennis world, may have said goodbye to one of its most enduring, inspiring figures. Yet his gritty, fighting qualities live on in Ferrer, who goes on to face American No.31 seed Steve Johnson in the third round.
And next up for Hewitt?
“I might have a quiet beer,” he said. “That's it.”