Sydney, Australia, 20 November 2020 | Leigh Rogers

Lleyton Hewitt entered the 2001 Tennis Masters Cup under intense pressure.

The 20-year-old was the newest Grand Slam champion in men’s tennis, having claimed his first major at the US Open two months earlier.

Australia was also hosting the ATP Tour’s season-ending championships for the first time since 1974. Played at the Sydney Superdome, a 17,000-strong crowd was hoping to see Hewitt secure the top ranking at the tournament.

“It was a three-horse race who could finish the year No.1,” Hewitt recalled in a recent interview with the ATP Tour.

“At the time I hadn’t got to world No.1, I was No.2 after winning the US Open. Gustavo Kuerten was No.1 and Andre Agassi was No.3.

“It was basically in each of our control. If we went out there and won the tour finals, we would finish No.1.”

Hewitt started the Tennis Masters Cup (which is now known as the ATP Finals) strongly, scoring round-robin wins against Agassi and No.7-ranked Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean.

With Agassi out of semifinal contention and Kuerten losing all his matches in the other group, Hewitt could secure the No.1 ranking with victory in his final round-robin match.

His opponent was world No.5 and fellow Australian Pat Rafter.

“He was like an older brother to me,” Hewitt said. “So for me, it was a weird feeling.”

“I was going out there playing my good mate and we were pairing up a week later to play the Davis Cup final.”

Rafter, who was 28 at the time and had defeated Hewitt in their only previous meeting that season, agreed it was a strange experience.

“I think the crowd sort of thought ‘Who are we going for? We want a good match here. But there’s a lot on the line’,” he said. “They were having mixed emotions as well.”

Hewitt recorded a 7-5 6-2 victory over Rafter to become the youngest man to ever hold the No.1 ranking.

“For me, it was one of the most special experiences in my career,” Hewitt said. “Especially to do it in my home country, in Australia.”

Hewitt went onto win the Tennis Masters Cup title, defeating Spain’s Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semifinal and a rematch with Grosjean in the final.

Round robin [2] Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) d [7] Sebastien Grosjean (FRA) 3-6 6-2 6-3
Round robin [2] Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) d [3] Andre Agassi (USA) 6-3 6-4
Round robin [2] Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) d [5] Patrick Rafter (AUS) 7-5 6-2
Semifinal [2] Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) d [4] Juan Carlos Ferrero (ESP) 6-4 6-3
Final [2] Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) d [7] Sebastien Grosjean (FRA) 6-3 6-3 6-4

Hewitt became the first Australian singles champion since the event’s inception in 1970.

He defended his Tennis Masters Cup title in Shanghai the following year and held onto the No.1 ranking for 75 consecutive weeks, the ninth longest reign in ATP Tour history.

Hewitt remains the only Australian man to win the singles title at the prestigious season-ending event, which is celebrating its 50th edition in London this week.