LONDON — An Aussie fan dressed in yellow and green rushed down to where Lleyton Hewitt was signing autographs and handed his cap to the former Wimbledon champion.
Hewitt grabbed the hat, placed it backward on his head and kept walking down the line.
Yes, for at least one day, this felt like old times – the 2002 champion taking what he wanted at the All England Club and getting nothing but cheers in return.
The 32-year-old Aussie defeated 11th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 on Monday for his first win in a Grand Slam tournament this year. Hewitt is ranked 70th, coming off a semifinal appearance at Queens, and says he's feeling good again – finally – after radical fusion surgery on his left big toe that several doctors said would end his career.
"It's obviously been a few years since I felt physically good on the court," said Hewitt, who dropped to 233rd while recovering from the toe injury. "It makes some of these wins even more special for me, to know what I've been through, to still be here."
Only four weeks ago at the French Open, Hewitt had a two-set lead over Gilles Simon but let it slip. This time, he was up two sets and a break on Wawrinka. He lost four match points before finally closing out the French Open quarterfinalist.
Hewitt dropped to his knees to celebrate the sort of victory that's becoming more and more precious for him. Later, he leaped off the ground and pumped his fist toward one of the handful of Aussie cheering sections in the crowd at Court 1, where sunlight was rapidly fading.
"I felt so close yet so far away from it there for a while," Hewitt said. "It was just sort of a matter of battling down. Obviously, everything I've been through, as well. The last two years I've come here and I've competed, but, yeah, last year I don't think I was even close to 50 percent physically. You just enjoy the moment."
The former world No. 1's greatest success came in the early 2000s, when the sport was transitioning from a long era during which Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi dominated to a new one in which Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal made up the biggest rivalry.
Hewitt won the U.S. Open in 2001, and then followed the next year with a Wimbledon title. He is something of a trivia question these days – the last man other than Federer, Nadal or Novak Djokovic to win the season's third major.
"I embrace it. I've only got good memories from here, really," Hewitt said. "As a kid growing up, if someone was going to say, `You're going to win one Wimbledon,' I would have taken it every day of the week, even with that being the only tournament. For me, it's always a special place to come back to, and always will be."
His next match is against Dustin Brown of Germany, a qualifier who topped Spain's Guillermo Garcia-Lopez on Monday. Hewitt won't look at anything beyond that – no player ranked 70th and coming off an upset would think of it, regardless of his pedigree.
But, he said, Monday's win was more proof "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," he said.