- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2002

He is the top-ranked player in men's tennis, a two-time Grand Slam winner and the odds-on favorite to win the U.S. Open. And he's only 21.
But is Lleyton Hewitt truly destined for greatness?
Or, to put it another way: Does Hewitt's recent success have less to with talent than opportunity?
Don't get us wrong: Hewitt is no slouch. He owns the best return of serve in the sport. His speed is unmatched. His intensity and mental toughness put most of his feckless contemporaries to shame (that means you, Mr. Safin).
At just 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds, however, Hewitt hardly fits the prototype of a modern heavy hitter. He looks more like the mini-mite Rochus brothers than Tommy Hass.
Consequently, while Hewitt's game is for the most part solid, it lacks an overpowering weapon a whiplash backhand, a punishing forehand, shot-snuffing volleys, booming, demoralizing aces.
As a result, the tenacious Hewitt has to work his tail off for every point, every game, every set. Unlike, say, Pete Sampras in his prime, Hewitt seldom enjoys the luxury of an easy freebie.
In short, Hewitt is a lot like vintage Michael Chang. Only with more pop.
So far, that's been good enough to capture a No.1 ranking and two of the last four Slams (U.S. Open, Wimbledon). The question is: Will it remain that way?
Like the underpowered Martina Hingis on the women's side, Hewitt may be capitalizing on a transitional period in men's tennis, a wobbly era that has produced less-than-immortal Slam winners Thomas Johansson and Albert Costa.
Old-guard champions such as Andre Agassi and Sampras are fading fast (Hewitt blitzed the aging, exhausted Pistol Pete in last year's U.S. Open final). Meanwhile, the new school has yet to assert itself in any meaningful way:
Gustavo Kuerten has the speed to keep up with Hewitt and the shot making to lash him. However, injury has sidelined him for much of the year. And outside of Roland Garros, he's oddly ineffective.
Andy Roddick took Hewitt to a fifth set in last year's U.S. Open quarterfinals before melting down in the wake of a questionable line call. His shaky maturity has yet to fully recover.
Tommy Haas was playing the best tennis of his career until his parents were involved in a major car accident this spring. He hasn't played since.
Big-serving Roger Federer and baseline bomber Juan Carlos Ferrero have the look of future champions, but neither has shown the killer instinct needed to win a Slam.
Big, powerful, agile and gifted, Marat Safin is without question the most talented player in the men's game. He's also the tour's biggest head case a flaky, inconsistent, gutless spazz. In short, he's the anti-Hewitt.
Should Hewitt's rivals find a way to step up, the tour's self-styled Rocky will have a fight on his hands and, perhaps, a truer test of his lasting significance.
In the interim, look for Hewitt's dominance and our skepticism to continue.

She's back
Good news for the women's game: Lindsay Davenport made a successful return from injury over the weekend, thrashing Anna Smashnova of Israel 6-3, 6-3 in a Fed Cup match on Saturday.
Davenport, a former world No.1, injured her right knee last November and hadn't played in serious competition since undergoing surgery in January.
Ranked No.9, Davenport will make her official return to the WTA tour at this week's Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Calif.
"My first match back in so long, that I'm even walking afterwards, I'm very, very happy," she said after defeating Smashnova. "My knee held up. Everything went smoothly."
Though Davenport struggled with control she hit a number of unforced errors her big serve and heavy ground strokes were very much in effect.
Will it be enough to challenge the Williams dynasty at Flushing Meadows? For now, Davenport isn't looking that far ahead.
"Physically right now, I feel great," she said. "But I don't know the level of my game or how consistent it will be. I really have never been off this long. The people I've spoken with who have had injuries said to expect ups and downs."

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