There's more to life than tennis for Lleyton Hewitt
LLEYTON Hewitt opens up to Andrew Webster in an exclusive interview about fatherhood, the future and advice for rising star Bernard Tomic.
Let's get it on the table straight away: So, Lleyton, when are you retiring?
Lleyton Hewitt thumps the question back like a two-handed backhand from the baseline.
"It doesn't really bother me," he says. "I'm fortunate: I can play as long as I want to play. There's no coach or trainer who is going to say to me that I'm dropped or sacked, it's time to move on. I can play as long as I want to play."
Hewitt - now 30 - doesn't tell you this with the impudence and arrogance some would expect.
He doesn't rub your nose in the question. He doesn't think you are "hounding" him with talk of ending it, as former Davis Cup captain John Fitzgerald has recently accused the media of doing.
He says it with a smile on a face that doesn't look too different to the teenager from Adelaide who ripped on to the scene more than a decade ago.
For all his success - Wimbledon and US Open crowns, Davis Cup heroics, 18 months as world No.1 - a great unknown remains when it comes to Hewitt.
We still don't know him.
In this interview, though, beneath bleak skies at the Sydney International Tennis Centre, ahead of tomorrow's star-studded charity event, he lets us in. Just a little.
"There are people who love you and people who hate you, but for me more so people only think they know me by how I act or perform on a tennis court," he says. "I'm more in that Rafa Nadal high-energy high-octane mould out there. I wear that emotion on the court. That's how I play my best tennis. People either like that or not. And I can't change that: that's who I am on a tennis court."
Last summer, his commentary at the Hopman Cup and then for Seven during the Australian Open showed us much more of Hewitt off the court than we have ever seen. We could hear him.
"Absolutely it opened me up to the public more," he says enthusiastically. "Tennis players go into a press conference and almost every one of them is the same. We do very little differently on a day-to-day basis. You have to play a straight bat, purely because you'll get bagged if you don't. Anything too controversial or out there, they jump on you."
The softening of Hewitt's image has come with maturity and time. Marriage and fatherhood.
His marriage to Home and Away star Bec Cartwright became tabloid fodder early on, but now they have a young family - with daughters Mia and Ava and son Cruz - the pursuit has slowed down.
When you hear Hewitt talk about his kids, he reveals a sense of perspective that wasn't there as a brattish baseline brawler upsetting umpires and linespeople.
"The charity event on Sunday is for Westmead Children's Hospital," he says "It hits home when you have kids. When the parents there tell you what they are going through, it's brutal. That's when it hits home that tennis is just a game. Just a sport. There is more to life than hitting a tennis ball."
Did Hewitt ever think he would ever say such a thing?
"I don't think my mind has changed that much in terms of life. When you are 16 on the tour, and that's the only thing you've ever dreamt of doing, your mind thinks one way. Marriage and children has changed my perspective. Even now with travelling to play, jetlag goes out the window. You work around your kids. When you lose a tough five-setter at Wimbledon and your kid runs up to you, it hits home that is just a tennis match."
That perspective has not sated his hunger, although his desire to keep going is born out of frustration.
He admits hip surgery three years ago almost prompted him to walk away, but in the last year it is chronic foot pain that forced him to bravely limp through Australia's last Davis Cup against Switzerland before calling an end to tennis for the year.
"It's about trying to finish my career in the least amount of pain as possible," says Hewitt. "I've done too much hard work and gone through too much pain to stop playing now. Only my close-knit team know what I've had to go through to keep bouncing back and fronting up. That's a driving force more than anything. Unless the foot blew up, I won't be stopping."
Hewitt will make a return for his country in the Hopman Cup, before using the Apia International - of which he is now an ambassador, wanting to promote tennis in NSW - as the springboard to another tilt at the Australian Open.
Not that long ago, in 2005, Hewitt was riding the lightning in that tournament, a nation behind him as he romped into the final, only to lose to Marat Safin.
"That showed me how much the country supports me," Hewitt says.
Now, more are gathering behind another precocious talent in Bernard Tomic, who will play in tomorrow's charity event but is polarising opinion just as Hewitt did.
At the last Davis Cup tie, captain Pat Rafter questioned Tomic's work ethic.
"It's hard to say how good he can be," Hewitt says. "You just don't know. He's exceptionally talented."
And what advice would he give him?
"Leave it all on the court," Hewitt smiles. "So many times, that's how I've won matches from impossible situations."
Even if it is just a tennis match.