Pete Sampras was kind of like the Beatles: After a long career at the summit of his profession, he chose to go out on top rather than slide into mediocrity.
Andre Agassi, on the other hand, was the Rolling Stones: Not known for the same consistency as his greatest rival, he made up for it through longevity, putting on a show for fans long after his peers had left the stage.
Under such a system of classification, where would Lleyton Hewitt fit?
The best I can come up with is the Smashing Pumpkins: For a short time, both he and they were at the top of their fields and achieved some major successes. Now, due to changing trends, long periods of absence, and an ultimately diluted product, they have only a shade of the influence they once did.
This comparison breaks down, though, in that while the Pumpkins' problems were largely related to the decisions of their misguided leader, Hewitt has had far less control over his results.
His is the classic counterpuncher’s trajectory: These players, being smart, swift, and eager to compete, burst onto the stage more fully developed than many of their peers.
Mats Wilander won his first major at age 17, as did Michael Chang later. Hewitt won his first title when he was not quite 17 and was No. 1 before he turned 21.
Like Chang in the early ‘90s, Hewitt was murder from the backcourt. He was fast enough to track down balls others could not, but had good enough groundstrokes to take the ball early and play with aggression.
Hewitt, however, knew more success than Chang, as his two-inch height advantage gave him a better serve, his early doubles play made him comfortable at net, and his Australian background made him at home on grass.
For all of these reasons, Hewitt remained No. 1 for all of 2002.
The downside of developing earlier than other players, however, is that one also breaks down before them. Wilander won the last of his seven majors at age 24. After lingering for a time at No. 2, Chang was out of the top 10 by age 26.
Hewitt, age 28, slid out of the top 10 three years ago and is now hoping to climb back. Given tough early assignments against Fernando Gonzalez at the Australian Open and in Indian Wells, he at least made his defeats hard-fought ones, his trademark tenacity pushing the unpredictable Chilean to the limit.
The same can’t be said for his match with Gilles Simon in Miami, because the Frenchman moves and counters about as well as the Australian did in his prime.
Though Simon has not yet demonstrated the fighting spirit of an in-form Hewitt, the Australian was unable to counter a younger, fresher version of his own style. Simon surrendered just three games.
This brings us to Houston, where the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships took place this past week.
Names of champions in the past decade include Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, and Tommy Haas. However, they also include Mardy Fish, Ivo Karlovic, and Marcel Granollers.
A victory here would not, by itself, be considered an announcement of Hewitt’s return to form, but would hardly hurt his long-term plans.
Hewitt treated the event as though it were the biggest, taking down the field without dropping a set.
Wins included a semifinal over up-and-coming Russian Evgeny Korolev and the final over gritty American journeyman Wayne Odesnik. In winning Houston, he also raised his ranking from No. 88 to No. 57.
It’s not hard to imagine a few third and fourth-tier event wins such as these allowing Hewitt to earn a seed at later majors, meaning he could be able to win a couple of matches before facing the Gonzos and the Simons.
One thing we don’t know, though, is whether beating the Odesniks in events like Houston will be enough to satisfy the man who once humbled Sampras in New York.
However, one can admire the effort it requires to take advantage of the opportunities that exist and hope to build on them. That reveals a dedication to bettering one’s self and a commitment to the sport we love.
That’s the problem with the rock band analogy: How many become rock stars early in life, are denied stardom later, yet play on in the coffee shops and bars for the love of music itself?
It’s a rare trait, and it’s why Hewitt’s results matter. He, along with fellow weekend winner Juan Carlos Ferrero (who in Casablanca won his first title since 2003!) has shown a dedication we can’t count on seeing all the time.
That’s why Hewitt’s win deserves our acknowledgments. His days of winning majors are behind him, as probably so is his time in the top 10.
But his days of being a credit to the game are far from over.