This year marks exactly a decade since Lleyton Hewitt reached the Australian Open final – and what an inspiring and dramatic ride all of Australia were made to endure as he attempted to become the first men’s homegrown champion since Mark Edmondson in 1976.
Hewitt entered the 2005 Australian Open having enjoyed a resurgent 2004 season which saw his ranking rise from 15th at the start of the year to third behind Roger Federer and Andy Roddick.
He had lost to Federer in the final of the Tennis Masters Cup; it counted as one of six losses Hewitt would suffer against the Swiss, another three of which came at the Grand Slams.
Hewitt warmed up for the Australian Open by successfully defending his Sydney International title, defeating qualifier Ivo Minar in the final. It was his fourth Sydney title in six years, previously winning in 2000, 2001 and 2004.
Expectations were high for the Aussie heading into his ninth consecutive appearance at the Australian Open dating back to his debut as a 15-year-old way back in 1997. His best result at the time was a run to the fourth round in 2000, 2003 and 2004.
The draw saw him assigned to then-world number two Andy Roddick’s half, meaning he would avoid potentially facing Federer until the final. However, the first round saw him dealt a tough opponent in the form of Arnaud Clement, a finalist only four years earlier when he lost to Andre Agassi in straight sets.
Hewitt had also just defeated him in straight sets en route to winning the aforementioned title in Sydney for the fourth time.
The result was no different when they met in the first round in Melbourne – again it was Hewitt who was victorious in straight sets, and onto the next round he went, where he was pitted up against American James Blake.
The pair had a history of spiteful meetings at Grand Slam level before, none more so than in 2001 when Hewitt was accused of making a racist comment after being foot-faulted at crucial times in the third set of that match.
Blake took the first set and appeared set to take a two-set lead when he led twice in the second-set tiebreak. However, Hewitt regrouped, took the second set and then ran away with it in four sets to dismiss Blake from the tournament and reach the third round.
What followed would be a spiteful four-set win over Juan Ignacio Chela, who during the fourth set was continually incensed by Hewitt’s famous celebratory gesture of “C’mon!”, such that he was seen spitting towards his direction after Hewitt appeared to have muttered something towards him during a changeover.
Jim Courier, commentating the match for Channel Seven, said it was “not good sportsmanship” (watch at 0:38 in the following video):
Next was Spanish young-gun Rafael Nadal, in a rematch of their third-round encounter from 12 months earlier. On that occasion, Hewitt won in straight sets with the first two sets being decided in tiebreaks, but this one was tougher.
Since that clash, Nadal upset Roger Federer in straight sets in their first career meeting in Miami and later featured in Spain’s 2004 Davis Cup win. Though Hewitt was the favourite leading into the rematch, he was made to work hard for victory.
Nadal led by two sets to one as Hewitt struggled with a hip injury, and kept up the pressure as the fourth set went to a tiebreak. The Australian would display his fighting spirit, level the match at two sets all then take the final set 6-2 to reach the quarter-finals of his national championships for the very first time.
Hewitt praised Nadal after the match, saying, “Rafael had nothing to lose, he’s got a great attitude and he’s good for the game. He’s hungry, he wants to play these matches in front of big crowds… this guy’s going to be around for a while.”
Nadal would then win his first (of 14 and still counting) Grand Slam title at the French Open later that year, while Hewitt would miss that event due to a rib injury.
The match took almost four hours to complete. You can view the match highlights here:
His opponent in the quarter-finals was fiery Argentine David Nalbandian, Hewitt’s victim in the 2002 Wimbledon final. In stark contrast to that one-sided final, their first meeting at Grand Slam level since then was highly dramatic and spiteful.
For the second consecutive match, Hewitt had to endure a five-setter, with the deciding set taking over 100 minutes to complete. In the end, the Australian took it out 10-8, sending him through to a semi-final showdown against Roddick.
World number two Roddick became the favourite for the title after defending champion Federer got knocked out by Marat Safin 24 hours earlier.
True to form, three aces from the 2003 US Open champion saw him clinch the first set 6-3. Hewitt, however, was not to be denied, winning the next two sets in tiebreaks to take a two-sets-to-one lead into the fourth set.
Hewitt dominated the fourth set as he completed victory in just under three hours, and his qualification for the Australian Open men’s final was the first by an Australian man since Pat Cash in 1988.
Awaiting him in the final was Safin, who had appeared in the decider two times previously, only for Thomas Johansson and Federer to deny him in 2002 and 2004 respectively.
As a matter of fact, Safin had to save a match point against Federer in his preceding semi-final to qualify for his third Australian Open final. He was looking to win his first Grand Slam title since the 2000 US Open, Hewitt his first since Wimbledon in 2002.
Undeterred by the pressure of a nation on his shoulders, Hewitt dominated Safin to take the opening set, 6-1.
However, the Russian came back and took the second set to level the match at one-set all. Hewitt then took a 4-1 lead in the third set but that was where it all started to unravel.
Safin won the next seven games, in the process taking a 2-0 lead in the fourth set. He held on to win in four sets, denying Hewitt the one Grand Slam title that he had longed to win.
Although the elusive chance to win the Australian Open went begging, Hewitt was still gracious in defeat.
“I’d like to congratulate Marat on a hell of a tournament, you knocked off the guy who’s been virtually impossible to beat so you definitely deserve it,” he told his conqueror in the post-match ceremony.
Safin replied, “You are such a great fighter and you have an amazing talent that God gave you to fight until the end.”
It was Safin’s final career title at any level, while Hewitt has not returned to the final, let alone reached the quarter-finals, since then. His best result since was a brave four-set loss to eventual champion Novak Djokovic in 2012, a year where injuries saw the Australian’s ranking drop out of the top 200.
A decade on and Hewitt will gear up for his 18th consecutive (and possibly last) Australian Open campaign. The Australian is coming off the worst Grand Slam year of his illustrious career (just one match win, at Wimbledon) and will turn 34 in February.
But while it’s fair to say that not much will be expected of him this year, talk of retirement will subside if Hewitt can get past the first round, something he has failed to do in the last two years.
One of Australia’s greatest tennis warriors may have never achieved his best results at Melbourne Park, but his career post-Wimbledon 2002 will probably be defined by his inspiring and dramatic run to the final a decade ago.
Please leave us your memories of Hewitt’s run to the 2005 Australian Open final in the comments below.