My First Title: Hewitt Remembers 1998 Adelaide
ATPWorldTour.com talks exclusively to Lleyton Hewitt on the 20th anniversary of his first ATP World Tour title at 1998 Adelaide
The abiding memory is of a stick-thin blond, wearing a baggy shirt and screams of “Come on!” echoing around the Adelaide Oval with every winning stroke.
Adelaide Tournament Director Colin Stubs must have known something when he awarded a wild card to a high-school student, ranked No. 550 in the ATP Rankings with one tour-level appearance to his name.
By the end of the first week of January 1998, Lleyton Hewitt had not just his parents, but the whole of the tennis world shaking their heads in disbelief. The local boy had worked his way through the field to become the lowest-ranked – and second-youngest – player to win an ATP World Tour event.
It was the first time that the fighting traits and personality, born not nurtured; the true competitor, who continually pushed, came to the fore on the global stage.
In stepping out of the classrooms of Immanuel College in Adelaide, 16-year-old Hewitt didn’t expect his stay to be long when he drew the previous year’s finalist, Scott Draper, in the first round of the 1998 Australian Men's Hard Court Championships.
“Walking out there, I really just didn't want to embarrass myself more than anything,” Hewitt exclusively told ATPWorldTour.com. “I wanted to put up a competitive match and somehow I got myself into a winning position. Even when I served for the match, I never thought I was actually going to win the match. It was more one point at a time, one game at a time. This roll kept continuing. I really didn't get nervous and closed out the first round [6-4, 6-4].”
“I then played another south Australian, Mark Woodforde, who had supported me a lot through juniors. That was a really tough match, coming back from match point down in the second set to win in three sets [4-6, 7-6(1), 6-1].
“Sometimes you look back and think, what would have happened if I had gone out in the second round? It would have been a great effort to win a match, but whether I would have had that kick start to my career you never know.”
After a 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 quarter-final victory over Vincent Spadea, he came face-to-face with his idol, another American and former World No. 1 Andre Agassi. “For me it was not about going out there and getting killed,” remembers Hewitt. “It was about trying to get as many games as possible. Andre was a guy that I idolised growing up, I loved the way he went about his tennis. His personality, he was so good for our sport.”
Just sitting in the locker room with Agassi, getting ready towards the end of the week, Hewitt had to pinch himself. Weeks ago, he had been one of thousands of high school students who would have loved the chance to play their childhood idol. But now Hewitt had that opportunity, and at Memorial Drive in Adelaide, where he had played all of his junior tennis.
“It was a packed house that afternoon on a really hot day,” says Hewitt. “Somehow both of our strengths were our return of serves and neither one of us was able to break for the two sets. It went to two tie-breaks and I was able to hold my nerve [7-6(5), 7-6(4)].”
Riding the crest of the wave, with many of his family and friends watching on from the temporary stands that swelled as the week went on, Hewitt was one match from the title. In his way stood Jason Stoltenberg, the experienced 1996 Wimbledon semi-finalist.
“I had to play Stolts in the final,” remembers Hewitt. “I knew him through being an orange boy in Davis Cup ties a couple of times. He was such a nice, level-headed guy. I was very lucky to end up winning 7-6 in the third set, another nail-biting tie-break to finish the tournament. At the end I had to pinch myself.”
Having struck a crosscourt backhand low to the feet of the net-rushing Stoltenberg, which he volleyed long, Hewitt dropped to his knees and raised both arms to the sky. In 48° Celsius (118° Fahrenheit) heat, Hewitt had remained cool and Australia had unearthed another tennis gem.
As he lifted the silver trophy, at 16 years and 11 months old, Hewitt was the youngest player to win a tour-level event since Michael Chang triumphed at San Francisco on 2 October 1988, aged 16 years seven months. He'd beaten five players with a combined 1,108 match wins. Hewitt's match wins tally, at the start of the week had been zero.
Hewitt recalls, “I was still planning on going to school as much as possible in Year 12, our final year of high school in Australia, but that January, just before school re-started in February, I got the Adelaide wild card. So I'd pretty much decided when I held up the trophy, that I wasn't going back to school.”
The victory, on 11 January 1998, saw him rise from No. 550 to No. 200 in the ATP Rankings - the first step in his rise to the pinnacle of the sport in November 2001.
“It gave me a massive opportunity to go full-time on the Tour and be a pro out there,” remembers Hewitt. “When those kind of opportunities present themselves, that's what I felt like I [had] to do."
“Players go through so much of their career wondering if they are ever going to be able to hold up an ATP Tour title. For me to do it in my first ATP World Tour main draw event was amazing, especially in my back yard in Adelaide.”