Hewitt's behavior continues to be questioned and discussed:
I realize Lindsay Davenport is a likeable and mature person as well as a great player, but do you think she's escaping some justified criticism for her "check, please" performance in the Oz final? I'd barely gotten over Andy Roddick's hissy fit and mailing-it-in performance in his final set against Lleyton Hewitt, but at least he had a wild crowd and a bundle of "come aawwwnns." Davenport had a mishit and a couple of bad points at 3-4 in the second with a friendly crowd and a semi-healthy opponent and headed for the exits. Nine straight games? A poor and, yes, immature performance on the part of a champion who should know better. But nobody seems to be mentioning that. Is she too likeable to get that kind of criticism?
-- Sarah Mott, Pittsburgh
There's probably a lesson in here for all of us. In a vacuum, Davenport probably deserved criticism for what, objectively speaking, was a pretty shabby performance, especially in a Grand Slam final. If you're going to stave off retirement because you're still competitive in Slams, you may as well fight like hell once you get in position to win one -- and resist beating yourself up over a few unforced errors.
Davenport, however, escaped a real bashing in the media, this space included. Why? Because for more than a decade , she has comported herself like a professional and has accrued a lot of good will in doing so. You watch someone who takes her tennis seriously, works hard to recover from injury, supports the WTA Tour, interacts with sponsors, complies with interview requests and plays doubles when so few other top players do -- and it's only natural to cut her some slack when her performance leaves something to be desired.
The converse, it's probably worth pointing out, holds for other players. When you treat people like garbage, and ritually blow off the media, and spit on the carpeted floor of the Houston locker room and sue your own Tour and treat opponents with disrespect and demean ballgirls in front of 14,000 fans and undress officials who have made the correct call against you -- people are going to jump down your back for the smallest infraction. Just hypothetically speaking, of course.
Look, I don't like Hewitt's antics, but I can't escape the great spectre of John McEnroe's behavior without noting Hewitt's pales in comparison. I also thought it rather amusing that Patrick McEnroe admitted on air that he, too, is offended by Hewitt's behavior. Do the tennis and media elite have collective amnesia when it comes to Mac? Why are they so hard on Hewitt while McEnroe always seems to get a pass?
-- Matthew Vitale, New York City
Mac? A free pass? Read the clips on him during the height of his powers -- the guy got skewered left, right and center. Hewitt has, predictably, generated a lot of mail these past few weeks, both pro and con. One splenetic reader referred to him as "eminently root-againstable." Another asked what the big deal was: "Why are people so upset against someone who pumps himself up by yelling, 'c'mon?' At least he cares."
My unvarnished feelings about Hewitt: You watch the guy, and it's impossible not to admire him. He is simply the best fighter in tennis, and the sport would be immeasurably stronger if other players -- male and female -- had a fraction of his pride, courage and heart. But you also watch him, and it's hard to respect him as a person. Grace and class are completely foreign concepts. And the "c'mons," while tactless and unsporting, are the least of it.
Someone recently asked me about Hewitt (and his army of enablers), wondering if he were merely misunderstood. I recalled the line from the terrific writer Mary Carr. Describing a particularly difficult family member, Carr wrote that anyone can get divorced and then remarry; but when you have four of five ex-spouses, maybe it's time to look in the mirror. As this applies to Hewitt, anyone can have a feud. But by the time you're suing your Tour, and your coach leaves you on the eve of your Wimbledon defense and the majority of your colleagues dislike you intensely and television announcers openly cheer against you and your (universally beloved) fiancée all but leaves you at the altar ... maybe a little introspection is in order.
I think both of these to a good job of explaining why Hewitt is such a divisive figure:
Tues., Feb. 2, 4:45 P.M.: Lleyton Nneytion II
Every long-suffering tennis nut, weary of combing the agate type in his local newspaper for tennis results, deserved to be in Melbourne for the Australian Open fortnight. Deserved to ride in one of Melbourne’s quaint electric tram cars with everyone talking about Lleyton Hewitt. Deserved to wake up to find Hewitt’s mug plastered in nearly full size on the front page of all the local papers. Deserved to hear the Hewitt jokes, the Hewitt gossip, the Hewitt rumors, the Hewitt debates, the Hewitt apologists, and Hewitt critics, going at it on the airwaves and studio sets. Every long-suffering tennis fan deserved to be in Melbourne to see that the sport of tennis is as important as you want to make it. The sport, and the players, can bear the load without disappointing anyone.
What a strange character we have in Hewitt. Some of his fellow players despise his on-court intensity and aggression, which borders on intimidation. And don’t try this “he’s just doing it to pump himself up” garbage; they didn’t put the words “inappropriate,” “distracting," and “excessive” in the dictionary just for Scrabble players. Even his own champion-starved countrymen are deeply divided on whether he’s some kind of borderline sociopath or competitive ubermensch – which, come to think of it, may not be such different identities.
Money quote from Andy Roddick (after he was asked if he “likes” Hewitt): “I respect him as a player. Let’s leave it at that.”
It’s odd, because there’s so much like about Hewitt. He doesn’t pretend that he’s contemplating running for prime minister some day. He’s stayed in his home town, Adelaide. He approaches a potential conversation like an unprepared freshman bracing for a pop quiz. He’s got a roommate (Australian Rules Football star Andrew McLeod) with whom he shares his $4 million digs. (Can you imagine the conversation? “Oi, matey,” says Lleyton, “pass me a slice with pepperoni and pineapple and by the way, your share this month comes to $46,000.”) He customizes his racquets by adding the colors of the Adelaide Crows football squad (red, blue, and yellow), the No. 23 (It’s said to be Lleyton’s favorite number, which is kind of bizarre until you realize that it’s his mate McLeod’s jersey number), and his nickname, “Rusty.”
This young tennis star isn’t driving a Ferrari, he’s still on a Spyder bike with a banana seat and baseball cards clipped near the spokes. My favorite part of the whole Hewitt gestalt is the “Rusty” bit. The nickname was bestowed by his former coach, Darren “Killer” Cahill (what is it with these Aussies and their nicknames?). It’s the name of the hilariously callow hormone-in-sneakers in the “National Lampoon Vacation” movie series. Rusty has outlasted all the other monikers and Hewitt is a kid who attracts them like Paris Hilton attracts publicity. At various times, I’ve heard Hewitt called Stumpy (presumably, because he’s short; the ATP Tour lists him at a credibility straining 5-11), Rocky (his love of the “Rocky” movies and his empathy with their main character is well-documented); also, he’s frequently compared to Phar Lap (a horse, true enough, but the Australian version of Seabiscuit), and Jimmy Connors (a nod to his combative progenitor).
In other words, Rusty is a world-class boy whom everybody is tempted to patronize. The fact that he’s now engaged to Aussie soap star (“Home and Away”) Bec Cartwright is less “Rusty” than the comment that he made when he was asked if he would watch the women’s final on Saturday. “Naw, mate,” he said, haughtily. “I’m not into women’s tennis anymore.” Can you imagine anything more juvenile, coming from the man who recently was engaged to the former women’s world No. 1, Kim Clijsters?
Who knew Hewitt could be so much fun, until the Melbourne papers began their all-Hewitt, all-the-time coverage? But here’s something else, on a more serious front. Rusty may be the most incredible player, after Federer, of this generation. Forget the fact that he was the youngest this, the youngest that. He’s a small man who’s blown up the conventional logic about the pre-eminence of power and size in tennis. His discipline when it comes to shot selection and tactics is nothing short of remarkable – has there ever been a player who hit fewer boneheaded shots? He plays at a more consistently high level of engagement than any player, and that produces a kind of neurological windfall that helps explains his astonishing quickness and retrieving ability.
Rusty may not be the most appealing or creative player out there (that arm-locked service motion alone is the ugliest thing in tennis since the Yevgeny Kafelnikov forehand), but he may be the most well-formed for winning. And, actually, he does drive a Ferrari. It’s a half-a-million dollar black Modena--spider.
Also, someone else (The "We Love You, Dean!" Australian Open Thread!!
) questioning The Fed's choice of shot on match point:
I respect Federer more than any player on the men's Tour. He is classy, super talented and likable. That said, I can't help but question his between the legs shot on match point against Safin. It seemed he had other options -- like hitting an inside-out forehand, and the match would have been over since Safin was flat footed in the middle of the court. Do you feel his ego might have gotten to him and caused this showboat shot that ultimately cost him the match? Was he trying to show up Safin? Federer's a great player, but this was foolish.
-- Irina Sukhanova, Brooklyn, N.Y.
A few of you raised this. I was fortunate enough to see a replay the next day (after your letters started trickling in), and I don't think you can blame Federer. He certainly didn't have time to stop, turn and whack a groundstroke. And this definitely wasn't showboating.
The between-the-legs shot is obviously highlight-reel fodder, but it's surprisingly effective. The opponent doesn't get a good read on the ball since the player is not facing him. Then, once the ball comes back, he is often jarred and plays the volley too conservatively.