ATPTour.com is this week celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Nitto ATP Finals. Today, we look at Lleyton Hewitt’s back-to-back titles in Sydney and Shanghai.
In a city still buzzing in the afterglow of an extraordinarily successful staging of the Olympic Games one year prior, the stars were again aligning in the Harbour City in the first year of the new millennium. It was Sydney’s turn in 2001 to host the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup and two of Australia’s favourite sporting sons, Lleyton Hewitt and Patrick Rafter, were among the best eight to qualify.
There was a heavy sense of anticipation a home champion would be crowned and World No. 2 Hewitt seemed the most likely to be that player. The 19-year-old had parted ways with the blond ponytail from a year ago, but the backwards cap and trademark grit had not budged.
In an interview with Tim Henman for ATPTour.com to mark the 50th anniversary of the Nitto ATP Finals, Hewitt recalled the immense pressure of playing at home with so much at stake in 2001. Only months prior he had throttled the great Pete Sampras to win his first Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows and now the World No. 1 ranking was up for grabs on home soil.
Hewitt’s coach at the time, Darren Cahill, cut a composed figure from the player’s box through each match, amid a packed Sydney Superdrome. Little more than 12 months earlier, the 17,000-seat venue played host to the Olympic basketball and gymnastics competitions.
Pitted against Sebastien Grosjean, Andre Agassi and compatriot Rafter in his group, Hewitt’s equation was relatively straight forward – win the title and he was assured of ascending to No.1. It was the same, however, for two of his rivals.
“Yeah absolutely [I felt extra pressure],” Hewitt said. “Plus going into 2001 [Tennis Masters Cup] it was a three-horse race who could finish the year No. 1. At the time I hadn’t got to No.1, I was No.2 after winning the US Open, Gustavo Kuerten was No.1 and Andre Agassi was No.3. It was basically in each of our control. If we went out and won the Masters Cup at the time we would finish No.1.”
Hewitt stood unbeaten following a three-set win over Grosjean before a convincing victory against Agassi. By virtue of this straight-sets result the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place sooner than expected as a twist in the race to No. 1 emerged.
“It all sort of changed all of a sudden,” Hewitt said. “The other two actually didn’t qualify for the semi-finals so then I had to play my last round-robin match against my good mate – he was like an older brother to me – in Pat Rafter.
“And so for me it was a weird feeling. I only had to win that last round-robin match to clinch the World No. 1 [ranking] for the final time that year and I was going out there playing my good mate and we were pairing up a week later to play the Davis Cup final. It was a surreal feeling but for me one of the most special experiences in my career, especially to do it in my home country, in Australia.”
Victory over Rafter secured top spot and a first Tennis Masters Cup semi-final berth, where his opponent, Juan Carlos Ferrero, managed to salvage just six games. In a rematch against the Frenchman Grosjean, Hewitt had well and truly hit his straps as he secured a fifth straight win and with it the trophy, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.
It capped a dramatic rise for the Australian. Only 12 months earlier he had qualified for his maiden Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon and while far from overawed, he failed to make it out of the round-robin stage.
Having reached his first Grand Slam semi-final at the US Open in 2000, an 18-year-old Hewitt avenged that defeat to Sampras in Lisbon but losses to world No.1 Marat Safin and Spain’s Alex Corretja ended his campaign.
The hunter had become the hunted in 12 short months and in 2002, Hewitt added a second Grand Slam trophy at Wimbledon. As top seed he was not afforded the luxury of underdog status this time round and when the Tennis Masters Cup made its Shanghai debut later in November, the Australian remained the man to beat.
Despite a loss to world No. 5 Carlos Moya, two punishing three-set victories over Albert Costa and Safin were enough to see the defending champion through the group stages, where he narrowly denied Roger Federer for a place in the final.
That for me was one of my most pleasing events because every match I played in the round-robin stage and the semi and final felt like epic matches,” Hewitt said. “I actually lost one of my first matches in the round-robin stage and knew I had to win every single match then to finish No.1 again, but also to win the title. I ended up beating Federer in the semis, 7-5 in the third, and then the next day I had to back up against Juan Carlos Ferrero.”
For the second straight year he held off the Spaniard, although this in a far closer affair this time round. His 7-5, 7-5, 2-6, 2-6, 6-4 triumph ensured back-to-back Tennis Masters Cups and back-to-back year-end No. 1 FedEx ATP Rankings.
“There was a lot of special memories of playing those matches against great players of my era,” Hewitt said. “I was really fortunate to play really well in the tour finals.”
Having failed to qualify in 2003, Hewitt contested what ended up his final Tennis Masters Cup in Houston in 2004, where he again reached the final. After victories over Moya and Gaston Gaudio in the group stage and Andy Roddick in the semi-finals, new World No. 1 Federer backed up his round-robin win with a straight-sets triumph for the title to leave Hewitt with a 13-5 record at the event.
In four appearances he had prevailed over former No. 1s and Grand Slam champions Sampras, Agassi, Federer, Safin, Roddick, Moya, Rafter and Ferrero. But it was his Shanghai triumph over Ferrero that stood out.
“It was probably beating Ferrero in the final in Shanghai because the semi-final against Roger was so physically gruelling,” Hewitt said. “We were the last match on the night before as well so I had to come back mid-afternoon the following day and back up that win.
“I had to dig deep and find something there in the fifth set. Once you are No.1 guys are hunting you, so it’s a totally different mindset to going in there and being the underdog so for me that was one of my most pleasing wins.”
Editor’s Note: The Nitto ATP Finals begins Sunday 15 November in London.