| Lleyton Hewitt, during the Masters Cup in Shanghai. (AP/PTI)
Shanghai: Lleyton Hewitt has been chased all season by a ruthless pack wanting his crown, battled a range of illnesses and created his fair share of controversies, but the young Australian has once again emerged as the best player of the year. The 21-year-old baseliner had to fight with all his famous grit and intensity right up until this week’s season-ending Masters Cup to hold off veteran American Andre Agassi for the prestigious title of 2002’s top ranked player.
It was a typically tough, dogged 12 months for Hewitt after he became the youngest player in history to finish the year ranked number one when he won the 2001 Masters Cup edition in Sydney.
Hewitt, then aged 20 years and eight months, took the honour from American Jimmy Connors, who was 22 years and three months when he finished the 1974 season as the world number one.
Since his Sydney triumph he has never fallen from the top ranking, despite a terrible start to the year after contracting chicken pox. Only three other legends of the sport have been able to hold on to the number one ranking for a full calendar year — Connors, Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras.
Hewitt officially recovered from chicken pox in time for the Australian Open in January but battled a depleted immune system to eventually lose to Spaniard Alberto Martin in the fourth round. His courage then was overshadowed by controversy when he accused his conqueror of “shocking” gamesmanship for taking an injury time-out at a crucial stage in the match.
The controversy faded eventually but the effects of the chicken pox lingered for the entire season, and his health hit a new lo w immediately after crushing David Nalbandian in the final at Wimbledon in July. “I put everything, mentally and physically, into winning Wimbledon this year and the day after Wimbledon I hit a wall and I haven’t been able to bounce back as well as I would have liked,” Hewitt said.
The Wimbledon triumph gave him his second Grand Slam title, following his US Open victory in 2001, and he made no secret of the fact that winning on grass at the All-England Club was a childhood dream come true.
Aside from Wimbledon, Hewitt won three other titles, including the Wimbledon lead-up at Queens for the third year in a row, equalling the achievement of American great John McEnroe.
Hewitt narrowly failed to defend his US Open crown, losing to Agassi in the semi-finals 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (1-7), 6-2, but he declared himself proud of reaching that far following his continued health problems. Agassi had to win here to overtake Hewitt but failed to make it out of the round robin stage with two consecutive losses. A devastated Agassi met the press after losing to Juan Carlos Ferrero in an epic battle last evening and paid tribute to his young rival.
“Obviously Lleyton has had a great year,” Agassi said. “He’s again proven himself to be the best out there and that’s not easy to do especially the way he plays the game so a lot of credit to him.”
Hewitt said Friday that becoming number one for the first time in Sydney last year was slightly more important than holding on to the ranking , but only just. “It’s something about getting to number one the first time. Just to say that in years gone by that you got to the pinnacle of your sport,” he said.
“But I think this has been a fantastic effort. It’s been fantastic in a lot of ways, just because I have... been able to hold number one for the whole year. I know Sampras has said a lot of the time that it’s a lot harder to hold the number one position. There’s no doubt about that. It’s bloody tough.”