some more news on the 25 most marketable players... (beware this is hewitt-centric) -
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some more news on the 25 most marketable players... (beware this is hewitt-centric)

THE ATP might have been ready with a gift-wrapped birthday present for Lleyton Hewitt as Australia's former world No. 1 turned 26 yesterday.

While the father of one remains a young man, in tennis years he's approaching middle age with a looming crisis of confidence threatening to take hold.

No longer is Adelaide's best the scrapping, fighting young gun outsider keen to take on the world with his Rocky-inspired grit.

Instead, some would argue that the 17th-ranked Hewitt's best days are behind him, his 2001 US Open and 2002 Wimbledon crowns the markers by which he will be remembered.

But that grim scenario might be brightened by what could not have been a more perfectly timed rescue mission from the reorganising ATP, which is set to launch a specialised player marketing blitz in the (northern) spring.

An elite branding strike force is being put into place around the world with the sole aim of promoting - and fattening the pockets of all - the 25 or so most marketable players in the top 100.

Officials have confirmed that Hewitt is on the shortlist but the final decision on whether he participates in the project rests with the player and his management.

The plan will be to allow worldwide sponsors to work specifically with a player of their choice for the first time, a practice that was forbidden by the organisation's by-laws. The payout for a well-known identity of Hewitt's fame and stature could be up to $US100,000 ($126,000) in extra annual income.

"There are players who are well known despite not having a top ranking," says ATP chief marketing officer Phil Anderton, named to the post in 2006 after working in Scottish football and with a soft drink giant.

"Lleyton Hewitt is a drawcard. If he agrees to participate, we haven't decided whether to promote him just in Australia or to a wider market. But it's all up to him."

After missing the last few months of the 2006 season with a knee injury, and now battling a hamstring tear, Hewitt could have celebrated a happier birthday after pulling out of Rotterdam last week with the injury.

But instead of making his usual quick getaway with wife Bec and baby Mia in tow, the newly contrite Australian spoke freely of his fight for fitness and then vowed to tournament director Richard Krajicek that he would return in 2008.

"I almost bit off his hand when he said that," Krajicek says of the 2004 champion.

The hamstring injury threw a spanner into Hewitt's plans to play again regularly and raise his ranking.

"During the Davis Cup [in Belgium], I was playing some of my best tennis," Hewitt says. "I was looking forward to the following weeks and I had entered as many tournaments as possible. I wanted to get on a roll, get some rough matches under my belt. I was hoping to get onto autopilot and work hard. But again I'm fighting a niggling injury. I'm as disappointed as anyone that I could not play."

Hewitt says despite patchy form over the past few seasons - he has won just two titles in the past two years - he is still battling to lift.

"I have a good group behind me and I have to deal with this as best as possible," he says, just over a week before the first masters series event of the season in California. "I'll work out a plan and talk with trainers and physios. I'll speak with the people I trust."

Former Wimbledon champion Krajicek likes Hewitt's odds of reinventing himself.

"His chances are pretty good," says the 1996 All England club winner. "Lleyton has good commitment, he's a fighter. He knows how to get to the top and knows what it is to bounce back again after a lesser period."
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