SYDNEY, January 10, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
One of the interesting dynamics of the ATP Cup this week in Australia has been the rivalry among team captains. Take Lleyton Hewitt of Team Australia and Tim Henman of Great Britain, for instance. Their names are familiar to many tennis fans of a certain generation because each is a contemporary former player.
Both Hewitt and Henman were stars on the ATP Tour during the early 2000s. Hewitt is a former World No. 1 and won two Grand Slam singles titles, while Henman is a former British No. 1 who never achieved Grand Slam glory but is nevertheless revered in his home country. On Thursday afternoon inside Sydney’s Ken Rosewall Arena, Hewitt and Henman faced each other as team captains when Australia and Great Britain kicked off the ATP Cup Final Eight in the first quarterfinal tie, which the Aussies won 2-1.
Forehand encouragement from the captain for 🇬🇧 #TeamGreatBritain
— ATPCup (@ATPCup) January 9, 2020
With their playing days ended, Hewitt has gone into coaching while Henman stays connected to tennis as a BBC TV commentator during the Grand Slams. Both reflect the personalities of their teams. Henman comes across as a friendly and collegial chap. Hewitt, nicknamed “Rusty” by one of his former coaches, Darren Cahill, is a scrappy fellow, just the kind of Aussie you would love to talk tennis with over a pint of beer.
“We’ve got each others’ backs,” said Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, who beat the South African-born and New Zealand-raised lefty Cameron Norrie of Great Britain, 6-2, 6-2, to give the Aussies a 1-0 lead against the British. “Rusty is the best captain, the teammates have been supporting each other and that’s paid off.”
Whenever there was a pressure-filled moment during the 72 minutes that Kyrgios held court against Norrie, it seemed, the oft-mercurial one who has been on his best behavior during this Aussie summer answered with a big serve. He fired 11 aces and mixed his repertoire by coming to the net and also hit some well-timed drop shots. Kyrgios outpointed Norrie 63-39 and won points on 72 percent (26 of 36) of his first-serve opportunities. His performance set the tone for the remainder of the tie.
“My serve came through in big moments today,” Kyrgios said after earning his team’s first point. Later on during press, he said, “I love the ATP Cup. I love any sort of team format. I’m just taking it one match at a time. I’m not even thinking about the Australian Open or what time of the year it is. I’m just doing whatever I can and whatever I can do in my power to get the best out of the team and myself.”
Kyrgios has been the gift that keeps on giving for Australia – and Henman has been among his biggest supporters. The British captain is an admirer of Kyrgios, but for different reasons. While he appreciates the natural athletic talent of the 24-year-old Canberra native, Henman also appreciates that Kyrgios has been vocal in speaking out about the plight of the bushfires affecting Australia.
“I am a big fan because I think that there’s a good person there,” said Henman, quoted by the London Daily Mail. “Nick has got his challenges and he would probably admit to making a few poor decisions. But deep down there is a good person there who I think can be a massive asset for the game because he is a huge talent.
“He has to try and surround himself with the right people and make good decisions and work hard day in and day out because he has got a game that a lot of people don’t want to play against.”
During their playing days, Hewitt, now 38, and Henman, 45, shared some tremendous battles that were usually won by the Aussie great. In fact, Hewitt won nine of their 10 meetings, none bigger than the 2002 Wimbledon singles final. Now, having some of the icons of the sport on the sidelines guiding the next generation of players is something Hewitt embraces.
“I think it adds a lot of weight to the competition,” Hewitt said before the Australia-Great Britain quarterfinal. “Tim as a coach, I think he’s pretty switched on with how he sees the game, as well. I have no doubt that he’ll be able to help these guys.“
No doubt, Henman hoped to get even in Sydney – it was a tie he had looked forward to all week long – and for a while, it looked like he would get even with Hewitt.
“Obviously, I have a lot of history with Lleyton and everyone knows their team well. It would be a big challenge. But we would love that opportunity,” Henman said before his team faced Australia. “I feel like there has been a great spirit in our team, I have certainly kept an eye on the other groups and what’s been going on. It will be a lot of fun.”
For a while, it was fun for the British. Great Britain drew even with Australia at 1-1 when Dan Evans beat Alex de Minaur, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (2), winning on his fifth match-point opportunity after three hours and 24 minutes – the longest match of the event. Throughout, Henman could be seen front and center in his team’s zone, offering words of encouragement to motivate Evans during changeovers like a fight manager does with a boxer. Keeping it positive was Henman’s theme with his charges.
“That’s why I play sport is for occasions like that. I enjoyed it,” said Evans after his win. Throughout, Evans exchanged some friendly barbs with both Hewitt and Kyrgios – and some back-and-forth conversation with Henman, too. “… I enjoyed every minute of it out there. Hopefully, everyone in the crowd enjoyed it, as well.”
Indeed, there was plenty of great atmosphere permeating inside Ken Rosewall Arena throughout the quarterfinal tie, from the enthusiasm of the spectators to the interplay coming from the innovative on-court benches.
“I think it’s fantastic for this event,” said Hewitt. “I think in the team environment, I really enjoy how the rest of the team is right behind me as well as sitting in the front row there. I really enjoy that because these guys feed off a lot of their support.”
In the decisive doubles rubber, winning became a tall order for both teams. Much to everyone’s surprise, Hewitt made a bold decision when he changed the order of his lineup and brought back Kyrgios and de Minaur for an encore. They replaced Australia’s undefeated and more experienced doubles pair of Chris Guccione and John Peers to face British duo Jamie Murray and Joe Salisbury. The strategy worked as Kyrgios and de Minaur saved four match points and won 3-6, 6-3, 18-16 to lift Australia to its 2-1 victory over Great Britain and into Saturday’s semifinals against either Spain or Belgium.
“I knew these two would gel well together,” said Hewitt of his gut decision to go with Kyrgios and de Minaur. “I have been around enough practice sessions to see these two on the doubles court together, and we spoke about it, and the boys were pumped.”
De Minaur said during the team’s press conference after beating Great Britain, “I’m going to do anything for the team. I knew that if I was going to step out on the doubles court, then I was going to make sure that I was going to be fired up, ready to go, and full of energy.
“It’s just amazing to see what Nick brings day after day. He’s come back from an epic win against Stefanos (Tsitsipas, on Tuesday), and today he just played clinical in the singles and doubles.”
During Great Britain’s press conference, Henman said he wasn’t surprised by Hewitt’s last-minute decision to change Australia’s doubles lineup. “Lleyton is the one who will know best. … I think it was a great effort by de Minaur to get back out there after coming in second. But, you know, whoever we were going to play against, (our) boys were ready to go, and you know they did an unbelievable job. You know, as Jamie and Joe realize, it’s tough to get over that finish line,” he said.
The bottom line, Hewitt said, is this: “Players want to play for their country. There’s no doubt about that. Tennis is such an individual sport throughout the year.
“For these guys to get the opportunity to play for their country, yeah, it’s pretty special for these guys. I said before we started this event, we are very fortunate and lucky that it’s in our backyard, and we get the opportunity to play as a team for our country on our home courts. …
“The tennis over the last week has already been fantastic … everyone’s laid it on the line out there. I think everyone has prepared as well as possible.”
What they’re saying
More from Great Britain team captain Tim Henman: “You know, it’s massively disappointing for the whole team to get that close and not be able to come out on top. You know, I’m sure it will take a little bit of time. It will sting for a while to move on from that.
“But I think when we do reflect on it, It’s been an incredible week of tennis. The boys have worked incredibly hard. I think their preparation has been excellent. They played at such a high level on the match court.
“We know that sport at its very highest level is fine margins. And in the two matches we have lost, that’s been very much evident.”
What they’re tweeting
Stuart Fraser, London Times tennis correspondent, on Nick Kyrgios: “If they could convince Nick Kyrgios that the Australian Open is a team event, then he would win it. Terrific performance in Sydney to beat Cameron Norrie 6-2, 6-2 …”
Team Australia’s John Millman on his team’s quarterfinal triumph over Great Britain: “That was some incredible tennis from both teams. The Great Britain team were brilliant. A flip of the coin at the end. How good were @NickKyrgios and @alexdeminaur #atpcup”