MELBOURNE: Former world number one Lleyton Hewitt bade an emotional farewell to tennis on Thursday after a combustible Australian Open defeat in which he slammed the umpire as an “idiot” and defiantly dismissed match-fixing allegations.
The intensely competitive Australian, roared on by a partisan crowd, could not live with Spain’s David Ferrer and he went down 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 in two hours 32 minutes to exit his final tournament before retiring.
Afterwards Hewitt, wearing a shirt decorated with the Australian flag, was joined on court by his three children while his wife, former soap opera actress Bec, looked on in tears.
“It was an unbelievable atmosphere out there. A couple of the roars during the match tonight was as loud as I’ve ever played in front of. I was getting goosebumps at times,” Hewitt said.
“It’s sort of a strange feeling because you’re obviously disappointed not to keep going, but obviously proud of everything we’ve done as well.”
Although Hewitt fought all the way in the second-round match, the feisty two-time Grand Slam winner could not get close enough to the tenacious Ferrer, who broke the Australian’s serve five times.
Emotion boiled over in the final set when, with the match ebbing away, Hewitt was given an audible obscenity warning before he clashed with the chair umpire, calling him a “frigging idiot”.
An emotional Ferrer paid tribute to Hewitt: “He is one of the best players in the history. His performance this Australian Open was very good. Tonight is the night for him and also for me.”
Hewitt also responded defiantly to his name being linked in an anonymous online report with historic match-fixing claims that have rocked the sport, saying it was “absurd” and a “farce.”
“I don’t think anyone here would think that I’ve done anything (like) corruption or match-fixing. It’s just absurd,” he said in his after-match press conference.
“Yeah, it’s disappointing. I think throwing my name out there with it makes the whole thing an absolute farce.”
Hewitt got off to a shaky start, losing his third service game with a netted backhand to groans from the home crowd.
He was again broken in his next service game with a forehand error as Ferrer went on to take the opening set in 37 minutes.
Hewitt was again broken by a Ferrer crosscourt backhand in the fifth game of the second set as the Australian was treated at several changeovers for a troublesome right quad.
But he kept fighting and had seven break point opportunities in an epic 14-minute game before Ferrer managed to hold serve at 5-3, then served out for a two sets lead.
Ferrer, one of the fittest players on tour, again attacked Hewitt’s serve and broke again in the third game of the third set.
But Hewitt had his home crowd on its feet when he broke back to love in the sixth game to keep his hopes flickering, only to be broken again in the next as tempers boiled over.
He was given the warning for an audible obscenity and then had words with the chair umpire at the changeover.
Inevitably Ferrer worked his way to serving for the match and claimed victory when Hewitt’s forehand was wide.
Hewitt, 35 next month, remains the youngest player to reach world number one, in 2001, aged 20 years and eight months.
He won two Grand Slams conquering Pete Sampras in the 2001 US Open final in straight sets, and Argentina’s David Nalbandian at Wimbledon the following year.
But a cherished Australian Open triumph forever eluded him in a record 20 straight attempts, coming closest in 2005 when he lost to Russian Marat Safin in the final.
Hewitt now takes on the non-playing captaincy role of Australia’s Davis Cup team. His first tie is against the United States in March.