The 2001 US Open was a watershed moment in time. Tennis, New York City, and the world would never be the same after its conclusion.
Cast your mind back to September 2001, and the Australian sporting landscape was dominated by the likes of Cathy Freeman, Ian Thorpe, Steve Waugh, Wayne Carey, Andrew Johns, John Eales, Liz Ellis, and Patrick Rafter.
But a fresh-faced 20-year-old from Adelaide was coming for Rafter’s throne at the top of Australian tennis, and more broadly the world crown as tennis prepared to enter a new golden age.
Lleyton Hewitt entered the US Open as the world number four after a breakthrough year in 2000 in which he reached the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows, won the mixed doubles with Kim Clijsters at Wimbledon before partnering with Max Mirnyi to win the mens doubles in New York.
By the time the 2001 US Open commenced, Hewitt was part of tennis’ exciting new generation of stars led by 2000 US Open Champion Marat Safin (21), local teenager Andy Roddick (19) and Switzerland’s Roger Federer (20).
The turn of the millennium and Safin’s Grand Slam win in 2000 saw this young core challenge the established order of Agassi, Sampras, Rafter, Kafelnikov, Ivanisevic and co for tennis supremacy.
Hewitt was the embodiment of this new wave of talent, and his on-court demeanour was fresh and edgy as he wore his cap backwards and let out his signature ‘c’mon’s’ throughout those two weeks.
After a tense five-setter against American wildcard James Blake in the second round – in which Hewitt came back from 2-1 down to win – seeded opponents Albert Portas and Tommy Haas were defeated in the third and fourth round respectively.
By then, Hewitt was the last remaining Aussie in the draw after Sampras defeated Rafter in four sets to set up a blockbuster quarter final against pre-tournament favourite and rival Agassi who had withstood the challenge of Federer in straight sets.
To equal his achievement from the previous summer, Hewitt had to withstand a gallant five-set effort from another American in Roddick, and ultimately prevailed 6-4 in the deciding set.
Former Russian world number one Yevgeny Kafelnikov was dismantled in straight sets in the semi as Hewitt dropped just four games on his way to qualifying for his first singles Grand Slam final where he faced four-time US Open Champion Sampras.
The American’s defeat of compatriot Agassi in the quarters and Safin in the semis made him the favourite heading into the match and he was supported as always by a boisterous New York crowd who were anticipating another Flushing Meadows triumph for the 13-time Grand Slam Champion.
Hewitt had other ideas and in a sporting coming-of-age moment, took the first set in a tiebreak before playing off a hostile crowd and blistering Sampras in the next two sets 6-1 to power his way to his first Grand Slam singles title.
The then-20-year-old’s win in New York on September 9 returned Australia to the pinnacle of the tennis world and inspired a new generation of kids to pick up a racquet with participation levels soaring across the country in the years the followed.
It also made him a major drawcard event at future slams, including his home slam in Melbourne where he memorably reached the final in 2005.
In November of 2001, Hewitt made history by becoming the youngest men’s number one in the ATP era when he secured the prized ranking four months shy of his 21st birthday.
While the memory of that memorable night at Arthur Ashe Stadium will forever be linked to the tragic events that followed 36 hours later, it is also a cause of celebration for Hewitt and his family, Australian tennis, and sport in this country, and sets a high benchmark for future generations to follow.
The legacy of the achievement lives on, and its significance is reinforced when remembering that no Australian male has won a Grand Slam singles title since he defeated David Nalbandian at Wimbledon in 2002.
Hewitt’s impact on the sport continues today with his role as Davis Cup Captain and esteemed commentator positioning him as one of the country’s most prominent and respected voices on the game, and a key reference point for Australian’s current and future crop of tennis talent.