Interview: Lleyton Hewitt
The Australian firebrand breaks a long silence to tell Donald McRae about his running war with the men who run tennis, his fears over drugs, and why he is desperate to win Wimbledon again
Monday June 14, 2004
'When I was a kid in Adelaide,"
Lleyton Hewitt says in an unusually reflective moment for a 23-year-old streetfighter of the court, "I dreamed of becoming No1 in the world, winning a grand slam and the Davis Cup for Australia."
Hewitt looks thoughtfully at his right thumb and two fingers, having watched them count off those three soaring ambitions one by one. They soon fold back into the palm of his hand, each digit having made its point.
"I was lucky enough to win the Davis Cup in my first year in 1999. I won my first slam at the US Open in 2001 and became world No1 later that year. By the age of 20 I'd done it all."
Hewitt pauses meaningfully. He does not need to embellish his glittering record. For 75 weeks, from November 2001 to April 2003, he led the world rankings as the youngest-ever player to reach that exalted position in men's tennis. In the middle of that streak he won Wimbledon in 2002, crushing Tim Henman even more imperiously than Pete Sampras had done before him. Hewitt's desire, and the sheer force of character he exerted over bigger and stronger opponents, seemed unquenchable. His feisty willingness to speak his mind also made him, after Andre Agassi, the most recognisable personality on an anodyne circuit. His contrastingly sweet and understated relationship with Kim Clijsters, rising towards the peak of women's tennis at the same time, brought further attention.
Now, after 15 months of trouble and strife countered only by Hewitt's stubborn gumption and cheery happiness away from the court, the picture is more complex - and much more intriguing. Hewitt laughs knowingly when it is suggested that the older he gets the more interesting he becomes. He slipped 16 places in the rankings last year, ending 2003 in the near-anonymous slot of world No17. Yet his current struggle to fight his way back to the top, while continuing a bitter legal battle against the sport's governing body, the ATP, has become a compelling saga.
Hewitt is already on a little roll as he prepares for Wimbledon next Monday. He began the month by reaching the quarter-finals of the French Open, on clay, the surface he likes least, an achievement overshadowed by Henman's extraordinary run to the semis in Paris. Last week, while an exhausted Henman got dumped in his first match at Queen's, Hewitt cruised through to the last four where he eventually lost to Andy Roddick. He has climbed back to No8 in the world. Asked if he relishes the prospect of ramming even better results down the gullets of his critics, Hewitt shakes his head. "I don't think of it like that. When I go out to play I still believe I'm as good as anyone out there. I don't have to prove anyone wrong. I know what I've done and how well I can play."
This time last year, however, the cracks opened. At the French he had lost early to the unheralded Tommy Robredo after blowing a 6-4, 6-1, 3-0 lead, the kind of advantage he normally executes mercilessly. His former idol Pat Cash remarked that Hewitt "wins a lot of matches on his speed and determination and guts" - implying that without those attributes he was just "an average player".
Hewitt dropped his coach Jason Stoltenberg, who accused him of being "stressed out". He then walked on to Centre Court for the first match of Wimbledon against an unknown 6ft 10in Croatian qualifier, Ivo Karlovic. He began exactly like a defending champion, racing away with the first set 6-1 and closing in on the second, when suddenly his "wheels", which Sampras called the best in tennis, simply fell off. It was a humiliating defeat for a proud champion.
From the outside it was easy to assume that Cash was right and that Hewitt's limitations had been rumbled. It was just as simple to imagine another scenario - Hewitt, having fulfilled all his courtside fantasies, had lost the intensity which once made him so formidable. How long, after all, could he keep burning with such furious resolve? The truth, again, was more complicated.
Hewitt made a calculated withdrawal from the ATP tour. While he claimed, and still does, that his absence from the circuit for so many months last year was motivated by a desire to concentrate on the Davis Cup, and to heal a small injury to his foot, his disdain for the governing body was plain. Hewitt had instigated a $1.5m (£850,000) lawsuit against the ATP in Australia last year after they attempted to fine him $100,000 - later reduced to $20,000 - for failing to attend a television interview in 2002.
"Their whole case was built on a lot of lies,"
Hewitt says. "Apart from the TV interview there've been other situations. A lot of things need to come out."
He suggests that, in 1999, the ATP had attempted to "blackmail" him by threatening to withhold a wildcard to their Lipton tournament in Miami. "They were trying to make me have a physical the day before. The tournament director had already given me a wildcard and said that if I didn't do it then they were going to take it back."
While the blackmail accusation is driven more by youthful spleen than lasting substance, Hewitt insists that "I want to stand my ground [against the ATP]. It's not about the money. I think they've done a few [wrong] things and I want them to apologise."
His running war will not just disappear. "It's going to be a long battle," he smiles grimly. "These are murky waters, mate."
When Hewitt returned to the tour at the start of the year, in Australia, the murk became a little thicker after it was revealed that Greg Rusedski had tested positive for nandrolone - only to be eventually exonerated once it was shown again that the ATP could have issued tainted supplements to its own players. "It's weird the amount of stuff that's come out over the last few years. Before Rusedski there was [Guillermo] Coria and [Juan Ignacio] Chela and a lot of guys who said the tablets were contaminated - and some of it was being dished out by the ATP. I don't really know what to think."
Hewitt says that "when you see guys in the fifth set looking even stronger than they did in the first it does make you wonder a little bit how clean the sport is. The thought does go through your mind - you're not human if it doesn't. I don't know what the whole deal is with the ATP supplements; I just know that something's going on."
Hewitt's trust in his own game, at least, is absolute. He helped Australia win the Davis Cup last year with monumental victories over Switzerland's Roger Federer, the current world No1 and reigning Wimbledon champion, and Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero. Against Federer he came back from two sets down and 3-5 in the third. "What he did today," said John Fitzgerald, his Davis Cup captain, "I'll never forget for the rest of my life."
"I played as well as I've ever played,"
Hewitt agrees. "Federer was producing great stuff but I started attacking more and just kept running for balls. I ran over him in the fifth."
Federer exacted revenge at the Australian Open, beating Hewitt with some magical tennis which illustrated why John McEnroe regards the Swiss player as possibly "the most talented player I've ever seen". Hewitt shrugs nonchalantly as he is entitled to do with a 7-4 record over Federer. "At the Australian I had to hold my hand up - 'too good, mate'. But he won't have forgotten the Davis Cup."
Hewitt is amusingly laconic when asked if Federer is the world's best player. "He's up there. But [Marat] Safin, on his game, is as hard to beat. And Andy Roddick has that huge serve. A lot of guys can beat you if you're slightly off your game."
Having beaten Henman in all seven of their matches, Hewitt cannot be expected to be anything more than polite about Tiger Tim. While he showed startling conviction in Paris, Henman will now endure even greater expectation. Hewitt's warning that the French is "the toughest of all the slams" might haunt Henman as fatigue takes hold of him in Wimbledon's fevered atmosphere.
"Tim's coped well at Wimbledon but it's hard. I know how he feels because I've been trying to win the Australian for ages - the pressure keeps building. But I don't believe any hoodoo's stopping me in Melbourne. Tim will be just as positive he can win Wimbledon."
Since winning the tournament Hewitt's passion for Wimbledon has deepened. "The more you go back the more you love it. At first it was weird. You can't see it on TV, but the aura gets you, seeing all the names of past champions and especially that walk to Centre Court. I struggled initially. People said I wasn't big enough to do well on grass or that I should serve and volley more. After a while I just said: 'Stuff it, I'm going to play my game and make it work.'
"Wimbledon became my whole focus in 2002 but I got a tough first-round draw. I played Jonas Bjorkman and he'd won Nottingham the week before. But I got through in straight sets and some of the bigger names dropped out. Then came that semi against Henman. I think Tim would agree he'd have been a big favourite for the title if he'd got past me. But I never thought I was going to lose."
Hewitt has had a year to become more philosophical about his doomed defence. "I'd heard of him," he says of Karlovic, "and seen him practice. I also prepared with my sister's boyfriend, Jochaim Johannsen, who has as big a serve as that guy. For a set and a half I returned beautifully and had set points to go 2-0 up. I wasn't able to take them and the whole match turned. He got real confident and I had few opportunities to break his serve. It was horrible.
"I had to hang around until the very end because Kim made it through to the semis and she was in the doubles as well. So I ended up watching the men's final on TV in London - only because Mark Philippoussis was playing. I didn't enjoy it."
There will be no such torture this year. The injured Clijsters will be a mere spectator rather than a contender. She will also come to Wimbledon as Hewitt's fiancée after he proposed to her just before Christmas "on a boat in Sydney Harbour. I kinda knew she was going to say yes but it was very cool."
Hewitt's candour and unexpected warmth envelopes his conversation, whether he is addressing the flaws in his tennis ("not enough cheap points on my serve, mate")
or celebrating the wonder of the Adelaide Crows and Aussie rules football ("best sport in the world, mate
"). Yet he is at his most endearing when talking about Clijsters. "I first spoke to Kim at the Australian Open in 2000. I don't want to sound like I was hunting her down but I really liked her. At the Open we ended up at the same table with a girl I knew from the juniors. We started talking and, boy, that was it."
While Hewitt is entertaining when describing their fantastically ostentatious new house in Adelaide - featuring an indoor cinema and an outdoor waterfall - he is positively earnest when stressing that, "at home we just like chilling together. We'd love a little more privacy but, apart from being recognised all over Australia, we're kinda big news in Belgium! But we don't like the limelight like most famous couples. We prefer to be normal because attention should only be on us when we're out on the court. That's where we shine in public. The rest belongs to us."