Darren Cahill: Lleyton Hewitt's journey from 'Little Mongrel' to Hall of Fame |  ATP circuit

Darren Cahill: Lleyton Hewitt’s journey from ‘Little Mongrel’ to Hall of Fame | ATP circuit

There are days when you just know.

This doesn’t happen often and to be perfectly honest, most of the time it’s an educated guess when predicting an athlete’s future.

It was in the early 90s in Adelaide, Australia. I had heard the whispers and the chatter. He had started bouncing around in tennis circles as a boom-boom serve from Boris Becker. A skinny blond young upstart from an elite athletic family caused a stir with his level of play and his unique desire to win that not everyone completely liked.

His name was Lleyton Hewitt. He was 12 years old.

My doorbell rang and I was waiting for it. I knew his parents Glynn (AFL football) and Cherilyn (Netball), but it was a first meeting, and it left a lasting impression that stuck through the years.

There was Lleyton. Steel eyes and focused. He looked small for his age, and he was. Dressed head-to-toe in Agassi Nike gear, cap backwards, zinc on his snozza, and carrying a Prince racquet bag slung over his shoulders full of frames.

“Hello buddy, I’m Darren,” I said, holding out my hand.

“Hi, I’m Lleyton, shall we play?” came the response with a firm handshake.

To be honest, it wasn’t really an answer but more of a request. I did not care. Already at this point, I was simultaneously amused, intrigued and intimidated.

I was 28 and had just pulled out of touring due to knee issues. But playing a 12-year-old kid was no problem. It turned out to be a slight miscalculation on my part.

We warmed up and I was amazed by his beautiful technique from the floor. Even his net game was solid and a lot of work had gone into giving him a solid base. This work had been done by one of SA’s best coaches, Peter Smith.

After 15 minutes, I asked Lleyton what he would like to do and he said, “Let’s do sets”.

Perfect. It’s time to teach this little bastard a little lesson.

The first two sets went without drama, as a kick from a 188cm former pro proved a little difficult for the talking garden gnome to handle. But something unusual started to happen.

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His father, who had stayed to watch, went to offer a little advice to his charge, and Lleyton stopped him in his tracks and said “Zip it Glynny boy, I got that.”

Like a velociraptor, he had begun to work on me and seek out my weaknesses. He stood on my serve and took it early. He started serving on my forehand, which I hated. And instead of allowing me to come to the net on my terms, he dragged me onto some junk balls and then proceeded with a backhand topspin that lobbed me to death. With every winner that came from little Hewitt’s racket, you could hear that now signature battle cry, “C’monnnn” at least five blocks away.

After practice, I went home and my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, watched and smiled. The first thing she said to me was, “What do you think of this kid?”

I said, “Damn, this kid is good. It’s going to be something special”

It was a rare day when you just know.

Two years later, when Lleyton was 15, I took him and two other Australian juniors to Switzerland to compete in the Junior Davis Cup, a prestigious event where all the top juniors came to represent their home countries.

There was another 15-year-old competing and representing Switzerland. His name was Roger Federer.

I knew Roger because my best friend, Peter Carter – who was based in Basel as a coach and club tennis player for TC Old Boys – had introduced me to Roger 12 months earlier and asked me to watch him train. .

I’ve watched it. I was impressed, but not blown away. Clearly a bad scouting day for me.

But now, 12 months later, Roger and Peter are all walking around wearing their red and white (Swiss) tracksuits. Roger had grown up and was now a lanky little man where Lleyton always wore shorts three sizes too big for him. Australia drew against Switzerland in the first draw, and it will be Lleyton Hewitt against Roger Federer in the first game. Peter was smiling like he just stole another one of my girlfriends (true story), but now I’m nervous that I misunderstood how good Lleyton is, and we’re going to sit on the back.

Lleyton didn’t let me down. The match was simply epic.

Federer walked away with the 7-6 victory in the third set. Australia walked away with the team’s 2-1 victory. The first of many great battles between these two good pals.

<a href=Lleyton Hewitt” />
Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Allsport
Fast forward to 2001.

It takes many qualities to be an elite athlete and not everyone is blessed with great speed, strength or height, but there are certain qualities that are non-negotiable to be a great champion.

They are work ethic, conviction, resilience and purpose. They all matter and you all need them. This is what separates the great players from the good ones.

All of those qualities, plus a bit of luck, were called upon in Lleyton’s run to her first major title at the US Open. He endured perhaps his toughest professional moments early in the tournament, which ended up defining him later in the event and for the rest of his career. He has matured. The man playing week two was not the one who started the tournament.

When Lleyton swaggered onto the court for his semi-final clash against Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the stars had lined up for him to deliver his most complete performance on the biggest stage to dispatch the two-time major winner in straight sets . Y-Man left the court broken.

Lleyton left the field to prepare for his first Grand Final against the great Pete Sampras.

On the morning of the final, Lleyton was surprisingly calm. He was given a preview of what to expect as they had played in the semi-finals at the US Open the previous year. Pete won in straight sets, but it was close.

Today, Lleyton was different. He was excited, not nervous. You could hear the crowd of 23,000 getting rowdy as game time approached. The New York crowd is doing its best to be heard through the hallways and locker rooms. He wanted a full Arthur Ashe stadium and he wanted it to be an American on the other side of the pitch. He knew he would get very little support from the crowd, but that’s how he liked it. Like I said, Lleyton was different.

The players were called onto the pitch, Lleyton’s cage was opened and the tiger was unleashed on Ashe Stadium.

Two hours later, Lleyton held the trophy in the air, winning in straight sets 7-6(4), 6-1, 6-1.

I was sitting next to Australian Davis Cup captain John Fitzgerald for the final, and all he kept saying was, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing. I can’t believe he’s really going to win this.” We were both in awe of the young man.

<a href=Lleyton Hewitt” />
Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman/Allsport
A few months later, he became the youngest player in history to reach world No. 1 and ended 2001 with a victory at the Nitto ATP Finals, capturing the year-end No. 1 ranking.

A remarkable achievement.

Lleyton’s DNA was different from most. He took an individual sport and transformed his matches into a team sport environment, using his experience of Australian rules to rally people around him like teammates. There was nothing solo about his performances and he wasn’t afraid to get involved in a fight. There may be a hint of Connors, McEnroe and Nastase in him, but there’s also plenty of Newcombe, Laver, Emerson and Rosewall running through his veins. That true Aussie spirit with a hint of mischief just to shake things up.

When it comes to the Davis Cup and representing his country, that’s where he really defined himself and his character. In his eyes, there was no greater honor and he played with his heart and soul every time he donned the green and gold. For many years he sacrificed his personal ranking and earnings to prioritize the Davis Cup on his schedule. His Davis Cup record speaks for itself, and the next generation of Australia are fortunate that he continues to give back to the game by continuing to be our Australian captain.

A winner of two major singles tournaments (US Open and Wimbledon), Lleyton was the year-end No. 1 two years in a row (2001 and 2002) and won 30 singles titles at tour level. He led Australia to two Davis Cup victories (1999 and 2003), and don’t forget the US Open doubles title with Max “The Beast” Mirnyi (2000).

Lleyton has etched a remarkable career. He was unlucky with several injuries in his mid-20s that stopped adding to his resume and clashing with two all-time greats in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in their prime, which made the difficult task.

Anyway, he can always look back on his career and be proud without regrets. As Lleyton often said, “I left it all there, mate.” Yes, you did young man. And more.

Most importantly, Lleyton left an important legacy competing for Australia and setting a standard of training and competition that every generation should look up to. He is a model for believing in the impossible, then making the impossible a reality. He left nothing to chance and loved every second of his trip. He had purpose, he bounced back through resilience, he exuded conviction and he had an unparalleled work ethic. And yes, he had the heart of a lion and the mind of a velociraptor.

His reward? A well-deserved induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame

Well done, Rusty!

<a href=Darren Cahill”

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