London: Seven surgeons told Lleyton Hewitt his tennis career was finished if he were to have an operation on his troublesome toe, but the gritty Australian is merrily defying them by battling on and making himself a force to be reckoned with once again.
Hewitt underwent a radical operation in February 2012 when he had bone cut from the big toe of his left foot and two screws and a metal plate permanently locked in. It was a last-ditch attempt to prolong his career but, at the age of 32, the former world number one is eyeing a solid run at Wimbledon, where he lifted the crown in 2002.
Hewitt stormed into the second round of Wimbledon in impressive fashion, knocking out Swiss 11th seed Stanislas Wawrinka, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3, on Monday.
The world number 70 said he had been told his career would be over if he went under the knife. His big toe was rendered arthritic and misshapen after years of digging into hard courts to launch his service action.
“There were two surgeons, the guy who ended up doing it and one other guy. There were probably five, six, seven that I spoke to worldwide. They said if I had it done, you’re done,” he said.
“In all my research beforehand, which was very extensive, I never found another athlete that had it done, or had it done and tried to come back and play any kind of sport. So that’s something I’m pretty proud of as well.”
The surgery — and persistent problems since his comeback — meant his ranking had slumped to 233 by July last year, but he is now at 70, which is his highest ranking since May 2011. However, he is not getting complacent.
“I’ll take it one match at a time. The moment that you knock off a decent player, then let your guard down, that’s when you’re going to go out of the tournament,” said the 2001 US Open champion.
“I still have to stay composed, be confident. I know that I’m hitting the ball well. Still got to go out there and do the job, though. I know that I can still play the game. I compete against the best guys. I play well in the big tournaments, I think. That’s why I’m still playing.”
Hewitt faces Germany’s Dustin Brown in the second round on Wednesday. He has never faced the Jamaican-born qualifier but his team scouted him out as he beat Spain’s Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.
“Never really seen him play. Rochey [coach Tony Roche] and a couple of the boys went and had a bit of a look. I’m sure we’ll sit down, speak to them. He’s a serve-volleyer, aggressive sort of player from what I’ve seen. Big forehand, big serve as well. I have to be on my game.”
Hewitt entered the All England Club in good form, getting to the Queen’s semi-finals.
Despite his ranking, he is one of only six Grand Slam champions in the draw and few players would take him lightly on his favourite surface. With 115 wins, he is the second-most successful active player on grass behind Roger Federer.
On downing Wawrinka on his fifth match point in the final game, Hewitt sank to his knees, then jumped up in delight and punched the air.
Australian supporters hugged him and patted him on the back as he made his way off court.
He said: “It’s obviously been a few years since I felt physically good on the court. It makes some of these wins even more special for me, to know what I’ve been through, to still be here.”