By the start of 2009, Lleyton Hewitt’s ranking had dipped below 100. He was coming back from hip surgery, tantamount to a death sentence for a counterpuncher whose game is built on speed and a ferocious willingness to grind. When I saw Hewitt in Miami, I was already thinking of him as a sentimental figure in the twilight of his career, Willie Mays doddering around center field for the 1972 Mets.
And then in April, Hewitt won his first tournament since 2007, a small clay court event in Houston. In July, he made it to the Wimbledon quarterfinals, losing to Andy Roddick, who was playing perhaps the best tennis of his life.
This week, he’s in Shanghai for the season’s penultimate Masters Series 1000 tournament. (The last one is in Paris, an indoor tournament in a postmodern glass-and-steel outpost on the city’s eastern fringe.) His ranking has climbed to 23.
In the era of Federer and Nadal, it’s easy to forget just how successful Hewitt has been. Among active players, Hewitt has won more career titles than anyone except Federer (61) and Nadal (36). According to an ATP media release from the Shanghai Masters, he’s tied with Andy Roddick at 27.
Hewitt will probably never hoist another Grand Slam trophy, but the energy-intensive game that served him so well as a young player may still take him to the top 15, maybe the top 10, even as he enters what the pro game might consider creaky senescence, a full 28 years of age.
In Shanghai’s round of 64, Hewitt took out giant John Isner. In the next round, he does battle with Gael Monfils, a much tougher customer. Will Hewitt prevail? It wouldn’t surprise me.