MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Andre Agassi did not think much of the 16-year-old Lleyton Hewitt when he marched out for their first match on a broiling hot day in South Australia in 1998.
A short and skinny kid with straggly hair spilling out of a backward-facing baseball cap, Hewitt looked more like an unkempt ball-boy than a promising junior wading into a tour event.
Some two hours later, a shell-shocked Agassi exited after a stinging 7-6 7-6 defeat in the Adelaide International semi-final, the world number one run ragged by a schoolboy with fire in his eyes and legs that simply refused to quit.
“I didn’t give him enough respect. I think I was convinced he was going to go away,” Agassi remarked at the time, running a rueful hand over his shaven head.
On Thursday, 18 years on from that watershed moment, the twice grand slam champion took a final bow in his record 20th and final appearance at his home grand slam, signing off with a 6-2 6-4 6-4 defeat to eighth-seeded Spaniard David Ferrer.
The loss under the Rod Laver Arena lights was emphatic but also showcased some classic Hewitt, as he scrambled for every ball, cursed a line judge and launched an angry tirade at the chair umpire before finally admitting defeat.
“”I feel fortunate to finish here,” he said courtside, surveying Rod Laver Arena for the last time.
He will not stray far from the court. He will now captain Australia’s Davis Cup team, having carried it on his shoulders for many of the 17 years since his 1999 debut.
Born into a family of professional Australian Rules football players, Hewitt also fancied a career in the rugged indigenous sport which prizes courage and toughness above all qualities.
That dream was shelved by the time he was 13, but the football field intensity stayed with him on the tennis court.
A young Hewitt cared little for reputations, flooring a procession of the tour’s hallowed names to soar up the rankings.
He routed Pete Sampras in straight sets to win the 2001 U.S. Open final and secure his maiden grand slam title.
Months later, he became the youngest ever men’s world number one at the age of 20.
A second grand slam triumph came at Wimbledon the following year, and Hewitt’s defeat of David Nalbandian inspired baseline hustlers that they could win the grasscourt tournament long the preserve of serve-and-volley specialists.
Hewitt spent a total of 80 weeks as world number one, an achievement made all the more impressive for the limited weapons in his arsenal.
Wielding a modest serve and lacking penetration in his groundstrokes, he relied on fitness, guile and a seemingly limitless reservoir of grit to grind down opponents rather than blow them off court with raw power.
Hewitt’s fierce on-court demeanor proved polarizing for opponents and fans alike.
He was jeered by spectators at Flushing Meadows during his run to the 2001 title, accused of racism after complaining to a chair umpire about the officiating of a black linesman.
Although gossip magazines delighted in his four-year relationship with Kim Clijsters, there was respect but little love from his nation’s home media during his halcyon days.
His trademark scream of ‘C’mon!’ annoyed Argentine player Juan Ignacio Chela so much that he earned a fine for spitting near Hewitt during their match at the 2005 Australian Open.
The Australian’s runner-up finish in his home tournament was his last trip to a grand slam final, with injuries taking their toll in subsequent years and a new generation of power hitters, not to mention the dominant Roger Federer, rising to the fore.
His famed court-speed ebbed away but the competitive fires raged on, and he ploughed on through another 10 seasons, determined to draw every last ounce from a body pock-marked from pain-killing injections.
For a street-fighter extraordinaire, there was no other way.
Editing by Martyn Herman