“It’s all about the Slams at this point in his career.” How often do we hear that phrase used nowadays? It feels like it’s said about any player who is either just past the top of his game. People have been saying that about Roger Federer for a while now. He just got back to #1 in the world, breaking Pete Sampras’s all-time record, mostly by his results outside the Slams. And tennis journalists and commentators have been saying that about Lleyton Hewitt for at least 4 or 5 years now.
But they couldn’t be more wrong. It might be true that history only cares about the Slams. Career titles, Maseters Shields, year-end top 10s, those are all nice things. A nice little addendum on a career. But a career is defined by 4 tournaments a year. That’s basically it. So yes, if Lleyton Hewitt wants to add to the already impressive mark he’s made on tennis history, he should concentrate only on doing well at the Slams.
But Hewitt is just in no condition to compete at the Slams anymore. Don’t get me wrong. Lleyton Hewitt is still one of the most talented tennis players on tour. We see this time and again when he meets another top player while healthy. His problem is that his body just can’t handle the stress of top-level tennis anymore. He can beat anyone for a set or 2 for a few days in a row. But he can’t do it for an entire week. And certainly not in best-of-5 set matches.
This was evidenced clearly in London at the Olympics. He outplayed Djokovic for a set-and-a-half. He really could have won that match. But it became clear as the second set progressed that he was tiring. By the time they reached the third, he just couldn’t compete at that top level anymore.
So yes, Hewitt could still play only for the Slams. And, with a good draw, he might even be able to pull out the surprise 4th-round performance like he did at the Australian Open this past year. But his body won’t last past that. It won’t make it through 7 3-set matches, let alone 4- or 5-setters. Yes, he could produce some great upsets and exciting tennis for a match or two, but he won’t be in the running in the second week.
What he should do instead is concentrate on the prestigious tournaments that he still can win. If he stays healthy, he can beat anyone in the world, especially in a best-of-3. And that means that he should be concentrating on the Masters 1000 tournaments. If he doesn’t expend all of his energy at the US Open, he could be a real threat to win Beijing or Paris. Now, of course, he would never do something like this. The Slams just mean so much more to everyone than the Masters. But he really could win another Masters title or two in these next few years. He especially has a chance at Indian Wells or Miami. They are not quite on his best surface (that would be grass), but they are spread out over a week-and-a-half, which gives his body more time to rest in between matches than other Masters do. Similarly, if he would be willing to use himself up before Wimbledon, he could probably win Queens (or Halle) a few times before his career ends.
Of course, this plan will never happen. The Slams just mean too much and they are clearly what Lleyton is playing for now. But it really is a shame. Hewitt won his Slams already and has been on top of the game in the past, but barring any absolute miracles, he won’t win another Slam. But a few Masters titles in his 30s would be an amazing way to top off what has been a great career, if only he’d be willing to go for it.
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