Hamish McLachlan recently caught up with long-time Swisse ambassador Lleyton Hewitt to chat about Lleyton's life and career ahead of his 20th and final Australian Open. The topics ranged from tennis, to Mick Jagger, to family life, with a few laughs along the way. This interview originally appeared in the Herald Sun.
LLEYTON Hewitt came into our tennis conscious at just 15 years of age when he played his first Australian Open. He has won the US Open, Wimbledon, the Davis Cup twice and was the youngest world No.1 the game has seen. He will play is 20th straight Open this year, and then retire. We talked at a Swisse TVC shoot about his love of football, pony tails, what he has learnt along the way, his wife Bec, the Crows, misconceptions, the weight of expectation, his private nature and the big moments on his career.
HM: You’ve got to make a life out of a game you love. That’s a privilege.
LH: Yeah absolutely. I feel very spoilt. I grew up loving all different kinds of sports, but to think that you could make a career — and a successful career — out of tennis, and to be able to get such enjoyment out of it day in day out, I am very lucky.
HM: Do you remember the first time you picked up a racquet and hit a tennis ball?
LH: I don’t remember the first time. I remember roughly when I went into my first group coaching session, which was at the Seaside Tennis Club. My parents were just playing local tennis on Saturday afternoons and they put me into a group lesson at about five or six. That’s the first time that I can actually remember going to the courts and hitting balls. The following year I started having one-on-one coaching.
HM: Did you fall in love with the game immediately?
LH: I don’t think so. I really loved my football. I loved the team aspect of footy, especially training-wise. I really enjoyed training in a group and being at school and talking about what we were going to do at training together that afternoon. Tennis is a very individual sport a lot of the time and I think that’s why I really enjoyed AFL as a kid growing up — I felt like I was around my mates probably a little bit more than tennis.
HM: The hat. When did it first get reversed?
LH: I did it a bit in juniors — I think it was kind of a bit of a phase there. Nearly every junior in my age group did it.
HM: It wasn’t a practical thing to keep the hair back?
LH: No, it wasn’t at all. I played a night match against Scott Draper in that first round of Adelaide in ‘98, and I won that match. And pretty much every match from then on, I wore it backwards, because that got me my first win in my first tournament, and I wasn’t going to change it.
HM: Almost a superstition. The pony tail — any chance of it resurfacing?
LH: No. None. No chance. (laughing)
HM: Rusty’s on your shoes. Who is the first guy that called you Rusty?
LH: Uh, Darren Cahill.
HM: National Lampoons?
LH: Yeah, he thought my family was like the Griswolds from the movie who were travelling around the tennis world, and the son in the movie, is Rusty. It kind of stuck with all those old Australian tennis players like the Woodies and Stolts and these guys, and it’s kind of just gone through the generations.
HM: “Good chat, Rusty”. You were 13 when you gave up the footy. Was it then you thought, “I can make a life and living out of tennis?”
LH: Yeah – I think I did. I came back when I was 13 from a month away on the European clay courts. I had to sacrifice missing a chunk of football to go over there because that was during the winter in Australia. I was in a junior Australian team and I went over there and I won three out of the four tournaments on a surface that I had never played on before. I was ranked number one in the world for my age at the time, and that’s when I came home and sort of had to start thinking, “Well, I’m playing OK at this sport now”. I really had to knuckle down and take the opportunity that had presented itself.
HM: What sort of footballer were you? Liken yourself to a player on a list.
LH: Um, (laughing) ... a guy like Rory Sloane, I’d like to say. You know, a guy that would go very hard but runs all day, competes like hell out there, he’s one of my favourite players, too.
HM: Can you remember life when you weren’t a tennis player?
LH: No, I can’t actually. Even when I was playing both footy and tennis as a young kid, I was still in the state squads with the tennis back in South Australia. I remember even then having some of my schooling lessons changed and altered so that I could leave early to be able to go and train for those squads. So tennis has always been the dominant part of my life, and everything and everyone else has sort of worked its way around my tennis schedule.
HM: On that basis, it’s had to be quite a selfish life? Your parents have given up so much, and I assume Jaslyn had to fit in with tennis’s demands?
LH: Uh, yeah, in some ways. Tennis is a pretty individual and selfish sport. And you sort of have to be selfish and look after your best interests to try and get the best out of yourself.
HM: Fifteen years old when you played your first Australian Open — it sounds ridiculous even saying it.
LH: It was the tournament I had always dreamt of playing in, all my life. I used to go to it every year and watch it, so for me to actually qualify at 15 when I was meant to be playing in the juniors two weeks later, it was surreal. I walked on court in the first round against a guy named Sergi Bruguera who’d won two French Open titles. It was a special time — you sort of had to sit back and pinch yourself and ask, "Is this really happening to me?”
HM: A year later — as a 16- year-old school kid you beat Andre Agassi in the semis of the SA Open and then took care of Jason Stoltenberg in the final. You announced yourself to the tennis world, and the tennis world was surprised. Were you?
LH: Yeah, I was. I went into the tournament as a last-minute wildcard. I was actually planning on playing qualifying like I had the year before, but didn’t have to. I was going out there to give it everything and put on a good show, and show I could compete against the topranked guys in the world, but I wasn’t expecting to win. I beat Scott Draper — who was runner-up the year before — in the first round and it was like a fairy tale as the week went on.
HM: You’re about to play in your 20th Australian Open and you’ve only had 34 birthdays. The more I think about that sentence, the crazier it is.
LH: It’s silly, isn’t it? It wasn’t something that I ever thought about until I started getting to about 17 or 18 Opens in a row. I haven’t always been 100 per cent fit going in. I had the chickenpox once, I’ve had a few dodgy knees and hips going into them, but I always did everything to get on the court for an Australian Open. You know, it’s our national grand slam, and I put it at the top of the tree in terms of all the tournaments that I want to compete in.
HM: Of the 19 Opens you’ve played, is there a moment that you treasure most?
LH: Not a moment, but in 2005 — the whole tournament, I think — making that run to the final. You know, I’d like to say the final Sunday of 2005, being a part of it was an awesome moment, but it just didn’t work out. The whole run was amazing, though. The quarter-final, beating Nalbandian on Australia Day in five sets. Then the semi-final beating Andy Roddick in a tight four-set match, and at the end of that match just knowing that you’ve got the opportunity to play in an Australian Open final. Walking out for a final of the Australian Open … wow.
HM: Jordan Speith said recently, when he’s sitting over a big putt in a major, he still gets incredibly nervous, anxious, almost fearful. Does that resonate with you on the big point?
LH: Uh, sometimes. I’d say, though, when I was in my absolute zone, in a match I didn’t, because I just backed myself in. It was kind of like I was on autopilot. And I had done it so often, I just kept backing myself. And I knew that I would produce under pressure and I actually really enjoyed that pressure and that feeling of expectation and weight on your shoulders out there. I always preferred having something to really play for rather than the opposite.
HM: When you’re in the zone, the court feels huge. But suddenly you can have a day when it feels as small as a playing card — and just trying to punch a second serve in seems a task. What happens?
LH: Sport happens (laughs). So much is played between the ears, it’s such a mental game out there. Physically you got to be extremely fit to do what we ask our bodies to do out there, but mentally, there are a lot of demons in your head. And as your career goes on, you’re going to have those ups and downs on the court. It’s about finding a way to fight those and block them out as much as possible. Even when I was at the top of the game, world No.1, I had those days as well.
HM: The most ties and most number of wins, a clear passion for it — why does Davis Cup mean so much to you?
LH: I think it comes back to that team situation and what I missed out on by having to give Australia Rules Football up at an early age. I loved going out there and playing for your mates and drawing a line in the sand and looking your teammate in the eye and knowing that they are going to go that same distance with you. I loved that about team sports, but tennis is a very individual and lonely sport for most of the year and that was my way of getting that. Plus I’m so passionate about our country.
HM: You’re now the seventh Davis Cup captain. How do you try and manufacture the culture that you grew up in and get young Australians to love playing Davis Cup again?
LH: I think all the Australian tennis players love playing Davis Cup, and they enjoy being out there and in a team atmosphere, so it’s about keeping that culture together and keeping it going. I’m fortunate dealing with the young guys that we have a great relationship with them and we have a mutual respect for each other, and that’s why I feel like I’m the right person for that job now moving forward. It’s something that I’m so passionate about, so they know what I expect out of them. They’ve seen how I prepare for Davis Cup. I want them to sit down and write out their schedules for the year with the grand slams and the Davis Cup weeks, and then work everything else around that. That’s where I think Davis Cup should sit.
HM: If the Davis Cup team, and the Crows, between them were going to win two crowns in the next five years, would you like it to be Davis Cup two, Crows two, or one apiece?
LH: (laughing) Uh, probably one a piece. (laughing)
HM: World’s youngest No.1. What made you the best?
LH: I think I was mentally tough out there. I believed in myself which is a massive key at such a young age. I think a lot of young guys go out there think they are talented and they can mix it with the best guys on one day, but maybe think they can’t do it day in and day out with the best guys. My return of serve and my court speed was probably second to none at the time as well which really helped. I also never overplayed, I always just played to my strengths.
HM: What do you lose as you age?
LH: A bit of speed around the court, probably, that’s the toughest thing. And purely just the niggles that come through having surgeries, it is harder to bounce back after some tough matches. It’s purely a body thing, I guess. The motivation is definitely still there, though.
HM: Who’s the best you’ve ever seen?
LH: Roger. He is the most complete player I’ve seen, absolutely. He plays a very fluent style of tennis that no one really has ever been able to come close to. It’s amazing how many generations he can cut across and still keep adding dimensions to his game to become better, but also to push these guys to new levels as well. Roger on hard court or grass at his best was nearly unbeatable. He is the greatest player ever to pick up a racket.
HM: Leaving the Aussies aside, who have you become closest to over the journey?
LH: Probably Roger, especially over the past five to six years. We’ve actually practised together a lot, especially leading into grand slams. He is a guy that I really respect. I think since we both got married and had kids as well, we both understand each other probably a little bit better. Tim Henman was another guy that I got along really well with. I practised a lot with Henners over the years. Another guy from an Englishspeaking country — you know, at that time in my career, there wasn’t too many of us out there!
HM: Family. How has Bec influenced your career?
LH: Oh, she’s been like a rock to me. You know, you have the highs and lows of being a professional athlete, and some of the tougher times for me are coming back from surgeries. I’ve had five surgeries in the last seven years. You start doubting whether you will actually be able to come back, so to have someone to talk it out with is vital. She really is my soul mate, and we go through absolutely everything together. I couldn’t be prouder to have Bec alongside me.
HM: There’s been enormous fascination in your relationship. Bec, from Home And Away to Lleyton’s wife,
Lleyton being Lleyton. Every time I look at a headline of a tabloid mag, I fear the worst with their misleading headlines. How have the tabloids put pressure on your marriage?
LH: That doesn’t put any pressure on (laughing). Bec and I haven’t had one argument, ever.
HM: That’s good going! But you look at these things, and you think …
LH: We don’t look at it (laughing). It’s as simple as that. Every week, there’s more rubbish. It gets more and more silly over time, and you really just shake your head at it and think, you know, these people obviously don’t have anything better to come up with. It’s certainly something that I would hope the public see through, and don’t read into it.
HM: What would Lleyton at 34 tell Lleyton at 12? Particularly off-court.
LH: I think the biggest thing is to enjoy your tennis as much as possible. It’s easy for anyone to say that, to enjoy what you’re doing, but it goes so quickly. You kind of take it all for granted in some ways, but I think it’s about really enjoying those moments that you are out there.
HM: So if you started your career knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently?
LH: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s hard to say. You learn so much over the years and you mature as a person as well, over time. How I handled the media at the early stages of my career is totally different to how it is now at the end of my career.
HM: You were quite guarded early.
LH: I’m still a very private person, even now. I think people have seen me in a different light recently in some ways, whether that’s me as a husband and a father, or seeing me in a different light as a commentator, and hearing me actually talk about tennis in a different way. As a player, you can say so many things wrong when you walk into a press conference straight after a match. A lot of people put up their fences, or they are guarded straight away, and you kind of have to be as well. You can’t open up about a whole lot of things, so I think the general public have probably seen me in a different light since I have actually gone into that commentary role. And maybe since I’ve become the elder statesman of Australian tennis as well, they view me differently.
HM: Walking down the street, do you walk more comfortably now than you did as world No.1 at just 20?
LH: Uh, yes, probably. Yeah, I think just over time, you understand how it all works, but I’m still a very private person though, too. I’ve always liked just having my tight-knit family and friends close to me. I feel a lot more comfortable in that surrounding, I think that’s probably why the public hasn’t seen the true Lleyton Hewitt. You know, they see how I am on a tennis court, or how I am in a press conference straight after a match. It’s not like I let out a whole lot of my secrets. I like keeping that very inhouse with my team.
HM: What do you feel the biggest misconception is about Lleyton Hewitt?
LH: Uh, probably how I am on the court to how I am off the court. I’m probably a more shy guy than a lot of people would expect, I guess, from going out and playing in front of 15,000- 20,000 screaming fans and feeling in total control out in the court, doing something I love and that comes very naturally to me. But walking down the street in front of a whole lot of people, I prefer not to.
HM: You’ve been world No.1. Two Davis Cup wins. A couple of majors. Which gave you the greatest sense of satisfaction at the time?
LH: It’s a tough one. Probably winning Wimbledon. I used to wake up during June and July in the middle of the night, to watch Wimbledon as a kid. I’d dreamt of just walking in the gates of the All England Club one day. I never thought I’d get close enough to actually see the trophy in a cabinet, let alone on centre court holding it up and kissing it.
HM: I’ve heard Mick Jagger talking about retirement. He said something like, “I could give the girls up, and the drugs, and the grog, but I couldn’t give up the fans”. Is that what you’ll miss most?
LH: Yeah, absolutely, and I don’t know how you replace that in some ways. I guess, for me, going into that new role of Davis Cup captain, I’m still around that atmosphere. You will still enjoy being out there in battle with these young guys, trying to get them to perform at their best out there. You know, the fans, they give you everything. I can’t thank them enough for all the years.
HM: So what do you think you’ll be feeling when you’re shaking hands with your last opponent, on Rod Laver Arena?
LH: I don’t know how I’ll be feeling, and I kind of don’t know how well I’m going to play either. I don’t think it’s something you can prepare yourself for. You don’t know
how your emotions are going to be out there with each match possibly being the last. And it’s different as well, because if I can find a way to deal with it, and actually go out there and play some good tennis, then the fairy tale keeps going as well.
HM: Do you think you’ll be more nervous the first round of 2016 or your first match against Sergei Bruguera as a 15-year-old?
LH: Possibly this year, I think.
HM: On or off-court, what’s your greatest achievement so far in 34 years?
LH: Uh, marrying Bec and having the three best kids.
HM: Nice way to be. If you’re going to play one more match in your life, you at your prime, and your opponent at his prime, who would you want to play and on what court?
LH: Uh ... I’d say Roger, and in the Australian Open final.
HM: Let’s hope it happens. Australia will be cheering for you again. Good luck.
LH: Thanks, mate. Appreciate it.
Credit: Hamish McLachlan and Herald Sun