Australia’s history in the Davis Cup is long and illustrious; a host of legendary players has helped the country to 28 titles, the second most of any nation. And in recent years, one man has become “the embodiment of the Davis Cup spirit” for his relentless grit and determination in the competition. That man is now in charge.
In 1999, an 18-year-old Lleyton Hewitt stepped on court in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, to meet world number eight Todd Martin in the quarter-finals of the Davis Cup. It was Hewitt’s first Davis Cup match; he’d had his mind fixed on this moment for many years. “When I was a kid in Adelaide, I dreamed of becoming No. 1 in the world, winning a grand slam and the Davis Cup for Australia,” he said years later.
The upset he caused that day by beating former Wimbledon quarter-finalist Martin ensured that this would not be his last appearance for his country.
Now captain, Hewitt has stamped his mark on the competition for Australia since that time. With impressive statistics including most wins (59), most ties played (42) and most years played (19), Lleyton Hewitt stands out as the country’s most exceptional Davis Cup player. In fact, Tennis Australia’s chief executive Craig Tiley called him “the embodiment of the Davis Cup spirit.”
To many tennis fans – not just in the southern hemisphere – the Davis Cup and Australia are inextricably linked. The country has featured in the competition for well over 100 years. In fact, with 28 titles, Australia has won the Davis Cup more than any other nation except the USA, from their first win in 1907 and including Hewitt’s debut year of 1999.
In the early years, the country combined with New Zealand to form a joint Australasia team although the only New Zealander who ever played was the celebrated player Anthony Wilding, whose career was cut tragically short on the First World War battlefields.
As the twentieth century progressed, Australia entered a period of dominance: between 1950 and 1973, they lifted the trophy an impressive 16 times, 15 of those under the guidance of legendary captain-coach Harry Hopman.
Having played in the 1930s, Hopman then turned captain, steering the team to the title in 1939 then taking the reins again between 1950 and 1969. He had some formidable players to help him, including Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Neale Fraser, Roy Emerson and Rod Laver to name just a few.
In 1951, player Frank Sedgman was considering a move to the professional ranks, which would have made him ineligible for the Davis Cup. Hopman embarked on a fundraising campaign, which enabled Sedgman to stay in the amateur game for another season.
And Sedgman had his own views on why the Australian team was so successful under Hopman: “He made us all do the training prior to playing all the Davis Cup matches. We also did a lot of running, you know, to keep us fit. I think this was one of the reasons the Australians were so successful in Davis Cup.”
Maybe Hopman’s strategy for all-round fitness was inspired by Wilding, who had championed the idea of physical fitness for tennis players decades earlier. In his book ‘On the Court and Off’, the New Zealander wrote in 1912: “It is impossible to get into a state of physical efficiency by tennis alone.”
The decades that followed the Hopman years were quieter on the Davis Cup front although the Australian team won the title four times between 1973 and 1986 under captain Neale Fraser.
Pat Cash, former world number six and Davis Cup title winner in 1983 and 1986 summed up why playing Davis Cup was so important: “It's one thing playing at Wimbledon or at a big tournament, but it's another playing for your country. It is a completely different atmosphere. It's like a World Cup but it's every single year.”
There were just two more wins after 1986, with teams featuring such notable players as Patrick Rafter, Mark Philippossis and the doubles pairing of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodford. Australia lifted the trophy most recently in 2003, beating Spain in the final. That year, there was one particular player whose grit and determination epitomised the fighting spirit of the Australian team. It was, of course, Lleyton Hewitt.
In the semi-final against Switzerland in Melbourne, going into the fourth match of the tie 2-1 down, Hewitt had faced a young Roger Federer, who would claim the world number one spot the following year, and was expected by many in the crowd to win. And for much of the match it seemed that way. Federer took the first two sets and played his way to within two points of sealing victory. But giving up without a fight is not in Hewitt’s nature. He saved the third set and then took the next two in a remarkable comeback.
“This beats the hell out of winning Wimbledon or the US Open” he said afterwards.
In 2015, Hewitt once again helped Australia to a dramatic come-back, this time in the quarter-final against Kazakhstan.
It was the sort of fight that Hewitt relishes, “I love the backs to the wall situation and we had to rally together to get the win.”
“The last three or four years, Davis Cup has been as big as any grand slam for me personally. When I make my schedule, everything has worked around the Davis Cup and trying to get the most out of myself."
And since 2016, Hewitt has embraced his role as captain, using his long experience in the competition to inspire the team:
“We have a rich tradition in Davis Cup, with so many great players. I want the young boys to understand that, and I’m proud to have been trusted to lead the next generation. For me, it’s about instilling my experience and helping the younger players be their best.”
With players like John Millman and doubles specialist John Peers, and the energy and inspiration of Nick Kyrgios, Jordan Thompson and Alex de Minaur, the team can build on the strong start they made in last year’s new format Davis Cup by Rakuten Madrid finals, only losing in the quarter-finals to eventual finalists Canada. In March, they reached the Finals following an epic battle with Brazil in the Qualifiers, overcoming last-minute injuries to both Kyrgios and de Minaur.
The fire is still there.
Wimbledon.com; DavisCup.com; BBC; Tennis-X; BrainyQuote