BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – With the Fanatics in bright yellow and raucously chanting for Lleyton Hewitt to stay on top of Roger Federer, the Brisbane International final had the surreal feel of a journey back in time.
It wouldn’t have seemed out of context a decade ago, when Hewitt spent 80 weeks atop the tennis rankings and Federer was yet to win a Grand Slam title.
But Hewitt’s 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 win Sunday over his longest-standing rival on tour was clearly an upset, and delivered him his first title since 2010.
The 32-year-old former No. 1s have met 27 times dating back to 1999, and Hewitt has now improved his record to nine wins against the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
Federer was broken three times and committed 22 unforced errors in the first set, making some uncharacteristically basic mistakes including an air swing and two shanked forehands.
He recovered in the second set and then had break-point chances in Hewitt’s first three service games in the deciding set, but couldn’t get the vital breakthrough when he needed it most.
“The way you tough it out . . . congratulations,” Federer said in a court-side interview. He added later that Hewitt did “a good job hanging around,”
“But I should have taken advantage already earlier, so I have some regrets,” he said. “It’s unfortunately one of those matches that got away from me.”
Hewitt received the trophy from Australian great Rod Laver, a regular at the Australian Open final presentations involving Federer over the years.
“It’s been a while since I won a trophy. For me to get it from you really means a lot,” Hewitt said. “I don’t need to congratulate Roger, he gets congratulated every week when he’s up here for finals!”
Hewitt had not won a title since he beat Federer in the final at Halle in 2010 and his most recent tournament victory on home soil was the 2005 Sydney International; the same year he lost the Australian Open decider to Marat Safin.
That result at Halle ended a 15-match losing streak to Federer. Now he has won two of their past three matches in the twilight of an injury-affected career that peaked when he won the 2001 U.S. Open and 2002 Wimbledon titles. Federer won the first of his four Australian Open titles in 2004, and ascended to the No. 1 ranking soon after. He remained in top spot for 4½ years.
Hewitt’s ranking was projected to reach the low 40s with the win. He finished last season at No. 61 in another disrupted season after toe, foot, hand, hip and back injuries kept him off the tour for long periods between 2007 and the start of 2013.
“We’ve been through a rough four or five years, five different surgeries, it’s been tough,” Hewitt said.
Hewitt was the youngest qualifier ever for the Australian Open, aged 15 when he made the main draw in 1997, and won his first ATP title in Adelaide the following year at 16 — the youngest winner in a decade on the ATP tour.
He said coming back at double that age to win another Australian tournament was almost on par.
“Obviously (the Adelaide title) is where it all started for me. I was 16. I was in my hometown . . . it’s hard to beat that,” he said. “But then winning here at a new tournament . . . I’ve won nearly every tournament there is to win in Australia.
“Yeah, to beat possibly the greatest player in the final means a lot. So it’s very hard to split them.”
Of his remote chance of being the first Australian since 1976 to win his home Open, Hewitt said the win over Federer “just gives me a lot more confidence going out there believing in how well I’m hitting the ball at the moment and that I can match up with the best guys.”
Federer, who didn’t make a Grand Slam final last year for the first time since 2002 and is now ranked No. 6, said the Brisbane tournament gave him a good idea of how his preparations are going for the Australian Open.
“I have a clear idea what I need to work on, and I have a clear idea where my mind and body is at,” he said. “I’m very hungry and eager to attack the Australian Open next week.”
Serena Williams retained her title in Brisbane on Saturday with a win over Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka. Venus Williams lost the Auckland final to Ana Ivanovic, and then withdrew from her scheduled appearance at the Hobart International this week.
Sloane Stephens, who withdrew from the Hopman Cup with a left wrist problem, confirmed Sunday she was pulling out of the Sydney tournament in a bid to be ready for the season’s first major.
And the Sydney tournament had its first upset Sunday when American Madison Keys beat seventh-seeded Simona Halep of Romania 6-1, 6-4. Third-seeded Sara Errani beat fellow Italian Roberta Vinci 6-4 6-2 in another first-round match.