August 21, 2002
By Curry Kirkpatrick
ESPN The Magazine
The new face of men's tennis was going to be Russian, a huge grinning wolfhound swatting the game into untold nether reaches of muscle and power. Or Spanish. Or Argentine. Or Brazilian, its happy-go-lucky personality sauntering to a samba backbeat. Or maybe -- post-Sampras, post-Agassi -- the new face of men's tennis was going to be another American, a tall, strong hero from the heartland who would not only Save the Men's Game but might even stand a chance of whipping those You-Know-Who sisters after they got bored pounding the poor women and took on the other half of humanity. But because of strain or pressure or hormonal disorder or the stock market, all those new faces seem to have faded into the rearview mirror on tennis' road to perdition. Instead, rising from the ashes of a sport that has longed for the days of Borg and Connors and even the best-selling author, TV commentator and America's Psycho Guest McEnroe, comes a kind of conglomeration of all of them.
There's no love lost between Hewitt and well, everyone.
His name is Lleyton Hewitt. A former surf baby from Australia, he's a straggly-haired, cap-backward, boulder-on-his-shoulder malcontent who has won both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon without most people outside tennis knowing much about him. Or caring. And that's just the way he wants it.
"I choose what's right for me," Hewitt said at Wimbledon after he'd almost lost to Dutchman Sjeng Schalken, then pulverized poor homebody Tim Henman and finally eliminated everybody else, ending with Argentine David Nalbandian, for the championship. "I'm not going to go out and do every interview. That's not right for my tennis, not in my best interest. Off the court I'm shy, more private than a lot of people."
Well and good. Given their druthers, wouldn't most of our sporting legends (save Charles Barkley and Tatum's ex-hubby) rather just hit their home runs, swish their baskets, score their TDs and spend their millions while skipping all those media and commercial and fan obligations? Sure they would, and Hewitt -- bless his enormous, fighting heart that seems four sizes bigger than his bony, 5-foot-11 (sure!), 150-pound (when soaked!) body -- does something about it. Namely, nothing.
Perceptive, even pleasant in the mass interviews required of him at the Grand Slams, Hewitt has almost surreptitiously (but absolutely) dominated his sport over the past year while denying face time to, among others, the trio of Australian beat writers whose job it is to report on him daily, a couple of Australian TV channels and, remarkably, The Times of London -- the latter slap setting off a somewhat hilarious huffy fit, to wit:
Hewitt's agent, Tom Ross: "You've dug yourself a very large hole with Lleyton."
The Times' Neil Harman: "If he doesn't want to speak to the most important newspaper in the world, you can both f-- off."
Pretty much the same treatment has been afforded The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated and -- speaking of the most important publication in the world -- this magazine. Okay, we're the media. But ESPN? Before the Tennis Masters Series in Cincinnati, which the network televised? Now that's getting downright ornery.
It's all happened so quickly: taking over the game with the panache of Borg, the heart of Connors and the 'tude of Mac ... changing coaches in midstream ... romancing the universally popular Belgian Top-10er, Kim Clijsters ... endearing himself to all the classic Aussie gentlemen stars of the past even while wallowing in politically incorrect, even racist, controversies in the present.
A couple of years ago, Hewitt was thought to be too short and scrawny, too lacking in the solid weapons needed to survive among the game's Big Bashers. He was even nixed as a mixed doubles partner by none other than Anna Kournikova for being "not accomplished enough." Last year he was just another one of those "New Balls Please" poster boys for an ATP Tour praying for somebody to replace the two-headed Sampragassian cash cow. One of his few press defenders, Richard Evans of The Sunday Times in London, described him as "a grunting, fist-pumping young pup with an attitude ... [who] thought winning necessitated behaving like a starving rottweiler."
Last September, when Hewitt shocked Sampras in straight sets to win the Open, the prevailing notion was that the old champion was running on empty after grueling battles against Agassi and defending titleholder Marat Safin. Even after he became, at 20, the youngest No.1 in ATP history by beating mentor-idol-countryman Pat Rafter at the Tennis Masters Cup in Sydney last November, it seemed obvious Hewitt was simply the beneficiary of everybody else reaching senility, suffering injury or not caring. After all, here was this skinny, blond, ever-yapping ("Come on!") kid who called himself Rock after the Rocky movies, who stayed on the baseline and hardly ever volleyed and who, in his first Slam after gaining the top rank, lost in the first round of the Australian Open to Alberto Martin of Spain because of ... chicken pox!! This guy couldn't be the best player on the planet, could he?
Well, yeah. And by a lot.
After all, Hewitt first drilled Agassi way back when he was a 16-year-old high school junior, stunningly winning his hometown Adelaide tournament. (He never went back to class.) He first thrashed Sampras two years ago when he won the Wimbledon warmup event at Queen's for the first of his three-peat titles there. "This guy is the future of tennis," Sampras said then, obviously unaware of how soon that future would arrive.
Even though he didn't grow up on grass -- unlike the other legends of Oz, Laver and Emerson and Newcombe -- Hewitt now seems more at home on it than on any other surface. "Several months ago, I just had a warm feeling about Wimbledon, coming back to it," Hewitt said in London. "I knew the victories at Queen's, even my prior losses on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, would help me this time."
In his first Centre Court visit, in 1999, when Hewitt was beaten by Boris Becker, the typically emotional roustabout was uncharacteristically in awe of the setting and in restraint of himself. "It was the 'class factor,'" he said then. "I've always tried to get in my opponent's face. Bring the aggression and passion from football to my game. But at Wimbledon, the Centre Court doesn't let you be you. It was like a church, a morgue. The place is intimidating. But then so was Boris."
Hewitt, who was a promising Aussie Rules footballer, still worships his hometown Adelaide Crows. "Competitiveness, fire, never giving up has always been in my blood. Aussie Rules is a pretty punchy sport, and I learned to survive. I'm one of the most mentally tough guys around. Other people hate to play me because they know I'm never-say-die."
Wimbledon 1999 was probably the last time a player or court intimidated Hewitt. With drive, talent and focus, as well as an uncanny ability to learn from experience, the South Australian has rarely seemed out of his element since swaddling clothes.
Whomp Todd Martin in his Davis Cup debut at Boston in 1999? Hey, he'd been an "orange boy" (fetching fruit for the mates) on the Aussie Davis Cup team when his hero, Rafter, was pulling off his own Cup heroics. Blitz Henman on the Englishman's own turf? Hey, Hewitt went all the way to Brazil in April 2001 and pounded Guga Kuerten in a Davis Cup match at Florianapolis. Embarrass the all-time majors record-holder, Sampras, in Hewitt's first Grand Slam final, the 2001 U.S. Open? Hey, he'd scared the bejesus out of the Pistol a year earlier in the Open semis, forcing two tiebreakers.
Facing down Wimbledon's veteran baiters from the fourth estate was a piece of cake for a guy who, in the past, has squirreled out of controversies at the French, where he once called an umpire "a spastic," and at Flushing Meadow, where he had to apologize to James Blake. "Are you more likely to be beaten up in the locker room than anyone else?" somebody asked Hewitt during the recent All England Club fortnight. "Doesn't really worry me," said Mr. Aussie Wonderful. "Bit of a silly question, isn't it?"
Hewitt's been taking vicious hits since 1999, when a newspaper columnist called him a "national disgrace." (Angered that an Adelaide crowd cheered against him because he had questioned a line call when he was up 5-0 on some pitiful wild card, Hewitt had uttered the immortal: "It's weird, but it's the stupidity of the Australian public.") Two years ago, an Australian magazine labeled him the country's "least admired sportsperson."
Before his recent press boycott, Hewitt told The Magazine: "I've grown up in tennis. This is what I've dreamed of doing forever. The role models may seem strange, but I always enjoyed watching the Swedes play -- Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg. I remember Connors' comeback in the 1991 Open, when he was so old, watching early in the morning from Australia. I could relate to that. And McEnroe? He took on the crowd, yelled at officials, bitched at everybody. That was his way, and I'm probably a lot like that. I've learned not to be inhibited."
The fist-pumping, chest-pounding and screaming at spectators, officials and players have kept Hewitt in hot water for much of his brief career. In his French Open debut in 1999, he called Argentine Martin Rodriguez an "ass--." Before a Davis Cup match the same year, when Yevgeny Kafelnikov vowed to teach Hewitt a lesson, the teenager kept screaming at the Russian, "I'm not going down!" Then, after winning easily, he held up some cash to mock paying for the "lesson" and said he'd enjoyed "sticking it to somebody who mouths off."
Even the low-key Alex Corretja of Spain calls Hewitt "an unfriendly guy who thinks he's a know-it-all when he's on court." Says Agassi's former coach, Brad Gilbert: "I'd be amazed if somebody doesn't whack him in the locker room."
But it's becoming increasingly difficult to whack Hewitt elsewhere, primarily because of his solidity off the ground and a deadly return game built on the fastest feet in the business. "I used to think Borg was the quickest guy I'd ever seen in tennis," says McEnroe. "Now I'm not so sure."
There were 33 players in the Wimbledon field with faster serves than Hewitt's best (124 mph). But opponents won only 35 percent of their second-serve points against his defense. Last year Hewitt led the tour in points won against second serve with an astounding 55 percent. Over all his matches in the past two years, Hewitt's 35 percent winning return games has also led the circuit. "His hand-eye coordination is just amazing," says left-handed Aussie rocket launcher Wayne Arthurs. "Put him on any surface -- grass, hardcourt, clay, cow paddock, I don't care -- he'll still hit the ball in the middle."
Henman, ever the thoughtful analyst and arguably the preeminent volleyer in the game, describes how it felt to play one of his best matches at Wimbledon, yet be smashed like an overripe strawberry, 7-5, 6-1, 7-5, by the relentless Hewitt: "I tried different tactics, different variations. But his legs are a massive asset. Unless you ace him, serving and volleying is probably a negative because you're playing into his biggest strength. You almost want to border on being negative in the rallies. You want to wait for a short one and then you don't really want to hit an approach shot because if you give him a chance to hit a pass, he'll hit it. You've just got to stay at the baseline and give him no pace. You either hit a winner or make a mistake. Approaching, winning points from the net, that doesn't work against him."
Consider the impression Hewitt made on the retired master, Becker: "What amazes me is the level of professionalism at only 21. He knows when to slow a match down, when to get excited and what levels of excitement bring out the best in him. Much of what I did was instinctive. But this guy has to spend a lot more time thinking on the court. In his attitude -- a street fighter without a timid bone in his body -- he's Connors. But the way he moves, the way he paces the points, he's Borg. He's the classic counterpuncher who also can win free points from his serve. In my mind he can do what Borg did and win Wimbledon five times. He can win five U.S. Opens, too. The guy is a lethal customer." Scion to a rich athletic heritage, Hewitt credits his competitive zeal to a gene pool stirred by his father, Glynn, a former football player with Richmond in the old Victorian League (now the Australian Football League), and his mother, Cherilyn, a phys ed instructor and netball player. (Netball is a combination of basketball and team handball that's hugely popular in Australia.)
"He's almost shy at home, but the court has always brought out the extrovert in him," says Glynn. "As Lleyton went through the club ranks and various divisions, he'd always have to play older men. If he'd get dodgy line calls, thought he was hooked, it wouldn't matter how old the other guy was, he'd let him know it. He's never taken a backward step on a tennis court."
John Newcombe, who's grown to admire Hewitt since bringing him onto the Davis Cup team as one of those orange boys, says he's the man to bring tennis out of its doldrums: "We once worried that his fire in the belly would turn into negativity. But he's beyond that bad stuff, and he's learning more every day. To suggest he's Connors or McEnroe is wrong. Those people were bullies on court. Lleyton's not. He's a lovely young bloke."
A bloke who may be on the verge of dominating the block on all surfaces. Hewitt's lack of a putaway killer shot has hindered progress on the slow, heavy dirt, where he's still learning to power through the ball in the manner of Kuerten, Corretja and Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain. But as he defends his title at the Open, he'll undoubtedly rely on the good memories from last year's event, as well as his victory over the star field at Indian Wells, Calif., in March, when he defeated former No.1 Carlos Moya, Thomas Enquist, Sampras and Henman (losing but nine total games in the latter two matches).
"Reaching No.1, winning Wimbledon, knowing your name will go up on the boards with all the greats, it's what every Australian kid who picks up a racket dreams of," says Hewitt. "For me to be there at the age of 21 is incredible."
Not to mention that the next time he asks Anna K to play doubles, she just might take his call.
This article appears in the September 2 issue of ESPN The Magazine.