Commentary

How much longer for Lleyton Hewitt?

Updated: June 23, 2011, 8:08 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- In some ways, Lleyton Hewitt hasn't mellowed with age.

Notoriously guarded and intermittently terse in press conferences, Hewitt gave nothing away when asked after his first-round win over prospect Kei Nishikori if he'd taken painkillers for a foot injury. This while Andy Murray was happy to reveal just about everything at Queen's regarding his recent ankle troubles, including how many pills he was popping in a given day to aid the healing process.

"You don't need to know that," Hewitt said.

On the court, Hewitt is full of transparency, still largely relying on desire and mental toughness to try to overcome opponents who are bigger, stronger and have more weapons. He faced one of those foes, Robin Soderling, and fell short in the second round against the powerful Swede. Hewitt blew a two-set lead for only the second time in his career and first since the 2003 French Open, exiting 6-7 (5), 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-4. With advanced tennis age comes tightness, and Hewitt was broken to end each of the final three sets.

The defeat marked Hewitt's earliest exit at the All England Club since 2003, sparking speculation, again, about the 30-year-old's future. Despite the hunger and grit, Hewitt's surgically repaired body isn't quite keeping up. His ailing foot forced Hewitt to withdraw from Eastbourne, and if it wasn't Wimbledon, he said he wouldn't be competing this week.

Hewitt, down to 130th in the rankings and sliding, has repeatedly denied in the past year he's set to call it quits, and did so again Thursday.

"It's not something that has even entered my mind," said Hewitt, who underwent foot surgery in March. "I wouldn't have gone through all the pain of the rehab if I was going to stop straight away."

Darren Cahill, his former coach, suggests he's not fibbing.

"It was great to see him out there Tuesday and more than anything, playing on a back court against a difficult opponent and showing the same type of emotion that he would playing on Centre Court in a final," said Cahill, an analyst with ESPN. "If he can get himself fit and healthy, there's no reason he can't play for a few more years, but it does all depend on the body."

There's reason for slight optimism. Hewitt, who is working with the venerable Tony Roche, has shown flashes of his former self in recent years, so how he'd love to indeed compete injury-free for even a single season. The belief he can test the elite and willingness to improve is what's keeping Hewitt going.

In 2009, Hewitt and his dodgy left hip -- he's since had his right hip operated on -- reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, beating a blossoming Juan Martin del Potro and rallying from two sets down to topple the ever-tricky Radek Stepanek. His eventual conqueror, in five sets, was Andy Roddick, a player he's often compared to. Roddick, like Hewitt, goes all out and maxed out his potential -- perhaps overachieving. Oh, they're both now considered sentimental favorites.

Roddick would go on to almost snatch the title, before Roger Federer edged him 16-14 in the fifth set of the final. Just last year, Hewitt ended Federer's reign in Halle, and at the 2009 U.S. Open, he had the Swiss in a modicum of trouble. He's clinging to those memories, even if Thursday's result will be temporarily difficult to digest. Hewitt puzzled Soderling, the world No. 5, for the first two sets and much of the encounter, patiently moving him around, constructing points well.

"It's hard at the moment, but in the end, I feel like I hit the ball pretty well," Hewitt said.

The naysayers, understandably growing in number, serve as motivation for the two-time Grand Slam champion, who hasn't been inside the top 15 since 2006 and last showed up in a major semifinal a year earlier.

"He loves it when someone says he can't do it," Craig Tiley, Tennis Australia's director of tennis, said. "That fires him up and drives him. To be a great tennis player, you need to be stubborn in some form, and he knows what he wants. It's gotten him far. He's got most of his career behind him, but I think he's got good moments ahead."

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.