Hewitt reflects on 9/11 near-miss after 2001 US Open

2 weeks ago 9
PR Distribution

Aussie tennis legend Lleyton Hewitt has reflected on the 20th anniversary of his momentous 2001 US Open victory and the scary scenario that unfolded merely days later with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Hewitt claimed his first grand slam title in New York in 2001, and did so in impressive fashion, defeating the indomitable Pete Sampras in straight sets in the final. Hewitt had beaten former world number one Yevgeny Kafelnikov and then rising star Andy Roddick en route, before thumping Sampras in front of his home crowd.

It was a victory which started the most successful period of the Australian's career, ultimately ending the year as the world's top-ranked male player.

But it was Hewitt's "surreal" near-miss in the days following his triumph at Flushing Meadows that on the 20th anniversary is hard to ignore.

Hewitt departed New York mere hours before one of the biggest moments in history rocked the world - the 9/11 terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

2001 US Open Champion Lleyton Hewitt with trophy, dad Glenn and mom Cheriilyn on the staircase at Grand Central Terminal (Getty)

With a Davis Cup semi-final against Sweden due to be played later that week, Hewitt completed his media committments the morning after his US Open victory and then flew out of New York in the evening. While he was in the air travelling home, two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Centre towers.

"It was incredible how it played out," Hewitt told Todd Woodbridge in a video for Tennis Australia.

"Looking back on it we were on the flight from LA to Sydney and at one stage mid-flight there were two or three air hostesses sitting in the galley and they were actually crying. I didn't think anything of it at the time but when we landed the pilot tried to explain as best he could what had happened while we were mid-air on that flight. It was a surreal moment.

"We were just in New York and to think that the whole city had changed while we were on that flight when we landed in Australia on the other side of the world.

"A lot of Australian Federal Police asked questions and made us fill out a lot of forms before we got off the plane purely because we had come from New York, whether we saw anything at the airports and how things could have played out potentially that we witnessed.

Lleyton Hewitt shares a laugh with the press, with the US Open Trophy (Getty)

"It was just disbelief for me to think I was out two nights before partying on cloud nine after winning my biggest title. And to also know there were people in New York who supported me that could have been stuck up in this as well in Manhattan... my thoughts went out to those people."

Hewitt recalls being immediately concerned for all those he knew in New York, including some visitors from Australia, like players from the Western Bulldogs who had travelled there to watch Hewitt in the US Open final.

"Luke Darcy, [Tony] Liberatore, and Nathan Brown and those boys, they actually watched me play in the US Open final against Pete, which I didn't know, but after the match they came down and kicked a footy on centre court," Hewitt explained.

"So they came out and celebrated with me that evening after I won, because I didn't have a lot of other Aussies over there at the time, and I knew they were doing the tourist things over the next few days.

"It was a weird situation for me to be in - to think one minute you couldn't be happier and then to just know that the whole world had changed."

2001 US Open Champion Lleyton Hewitt with Men's Singles Trophy in the middle of S. Park Avenue in New York CIty (Getty)

Hewitt's scheduled post-US Open victory press conference upon landing in Sydney was understandably cancelled, and instantly a much bigger news story dominated headlines.

Even though his win was quickly overshadowed by the immense shock and tragedy of 9/11, the US Open final match was among the highlights of Hewitt's career.

"For me it was a special time," he said.

"To get the opportunity to play Pete who at the time was arguably the greatest tennis player we'd seen. He'd won 13 majors I think at that stage in his career and was one of the all time greats."

Hewitt's gameplan for the final was simple, and it worked perfectly - make Sampras uncomfortable and prove the naysayers wrong that doubted the Aussie's ability to nullify the American's big service game.

"Going to the final there was a lot of talk about how the hell I was going to be able to break Sampras' serve because he was on some ridiculous winning streak with service games throughout that US Open tournament," Hewitt said.

"It wasn't something I focused on but I know I always backed myself as a return-of-server. I never had the biggest serve, I really focused on trying to take away their strength and make him play a lot of balls.

"I got the opportunity to return first game and I actually broke him first game and I remember a little light bulb going off in my head to the media, well, it didn't take me long to break his service game. I got broken the very next game and for the rest of the first set it went on serve and ended up in a tiebreak.

"Once I felt I was able to get through that first set that's where the floodgates really opened and I could see him starting to doubt himself as well.

Ivan Lendl poses with Pete Sampras and Lleyton Hewitt prior to the 2001 Men's Final. (Getty)

"For my match-up against Peter, it was not a matter of hitting clean winners, but making him play a lot of tough low volleys to set up that next ball for me. I felt like as the match went on I was seeing the ball bigger and bigger and ended up running away with it in the second and third set."

Hewitt said though he had defeated Sampras - and the loud US crowd cheering against him - he still felt the love when he played in the States because of his trademark style.

"I felt like all the talking and screaming, even mid-points sometimes, it actually made me concentrate more," he said.

"That put me in a zone when I was competing and playing.

"But I think the New York crowd always appreciated me for the effort I brought to the court. If I wasn't playing an American I felt like the US crowd was on my side because they love that grit and never say die attitude."

For a daily dose of the best of the breaking news and exclusive content from Wide World of Sports, subscribe to our newsletter by clicking here!

Read Entire Article