- The Washington Times - Monday, September 2, 2002

NEW YORK He is indisputably annoying on the court, a walking, talking irritation of the first degree. From his buggy eyes to his pumping fists to his excessive, incessant bleating, Lleyton Hewitt is perhaps the punkiest No.1 in men's tennis since the great and grating John McEnroe.
Which, of course, is half the reason he's so good.
"I'm the first to admit I am very competitive," Hewitt said. "As soon as I step on the court, I am intensity. I want to win."
That will to win the heck with how it plays has carried Hewitt to more than just a few victories. Behind his snarling, relentless style, Hewitt has emerged as the premier player in the sport, a Wimbledon winner and the prohibitive favorite (as far as that goes in the wild n' woolly men's game) to repeat as U.S. Open champion.
For a scrawny 21-year-old Australian who stands all of 5-foot-11 and weighs 150 pounds or so the ATP media guide claims that's no mean feat.
"[Its] a certain attitude of not wanting to give up," said the equally undersized Michael Chang. "Lleyton has a great fighting spirit."
No kidding. An on-court Marty McFly, Hewitt is the sort of player who wouldn't back down from a scrap if you spotted the other guy a lead pipe and an Abrams battle tank. Like Jimmy Connors, he carries a glacier-size chip on his shoulder, turning every match into a hustling, self-exhorting, "C'moooon!"-shouting battle of wills.
Yet while Hewitt's punchy persona has served him well on the Tour, it's also gotten him into hot water with and please, take your pick the media, the ATP and the Australian public, whom he once dubbed "stupid."
In fact, Hewitt's first significant exposure to Stateside fans came during an imbroglio at least year's Open, more than a week before he pummeled a stunned Pete Sampras for the title. During a second-round match against American up-and-comer James Blake, who is black, Hewitt was called for a pair of foot faults by an African-American linesman.
Enraged, Hewitt approached the chair umpire, demanded that the linesman be removed and blurted "Look at him, and you tell me what the similarity is!"
The remarks touched off a media firestorm and accusations of prejudice. In a subsequent news conference, Hewitt said he meant nothing racial and that he and Blake has settled the matter in the locker room.
"It happened, and people saw it their way and everyone's got their opinion," Hewitt said. "I can't change that. I go out there and thank God I was able to be very mentally tough and block everything out."
More recently, Hewitt was fined $103,000 by the ATP for refusing to do an interview with ESPN before a first-round match in Cincinnati last month.
In the past, Hewitt has refused requests from the Times of London, the New York Times and Sports Illustrated; this time around, the Tour claims that Hewitt dodged a mandatory ESPN sit-down for more than a week, dating back to a previous tournament in Toronto.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hewitt is appealing the fine. In the interim, he has repeatedly ripped the ATP calling the Tour a "circus," vowing to alter his schedule next year and blaming ATP leadership for the declining popularity of men's tennis vis-a-vis the women's game.
"A lot of people lied," Hewitt said of the Cincinnati incident. "That's a known fact. I've got no doubt that I'm going to win. There won't be a fine at all the ATP people were lying."
While Hewitt's media stonewalling has lead some members of the Australian press to dub him "Satan Hewitt," others paint a different picture. Girlfriend and Belgian tennis star Kim Clijsters calls Hewitt a "nice guy," an assessment shared by Davis Cup teammate Wayne Arthurs.
"I don't know how to put it, but I have really no problems with Lleyton back in the locker room," Arthurs said. "He's a really nice guy. [Its] a little unfortunate that he has had a little bit of problems with the media."
Arthurs has a point: When Hewitt deigns to speak with the media, he can be quite engaging. And away from tennis, he comes off like a regular if driven bloke.
At home in Adelaide, Hewitt stays with his parents, Glynn (a former Aussie rules footballer) and Cherilyn (a phys ed teacher). On the road, he keeps the company of a small group that includes Clijsters, a childhood pal and his coach, former pro Jason Stoltenberg.
Hewitt's abiding passion off the court? The Adelaide Crows, an Aussie rules football squad.
"I think a lot of people perceive that [Im] probably nasty off the court," Hewitt said. "I am actually pretty shy. When I went to school back in Adelaide I was shy. I didn't argue with anyone, I had a lot of friends there. But it's sort of the same on the Tour. In the locker room I sort of keep to myself. I do my own thing."
Though Hewitt's penchant for privacy won't put him in the company of, say, affable countryman Patrick Rafter easily the Tour's most popular player before his pseudo-retirement his dogged competitiveness has won him plenty of respect. As have his impressive results.
In a sport that favors size and power, Hewitt compensates for his puny frame with unmatched speed and a return of serve that rivals Andre Agassi's. Former world No.1 Jim Courier recently called Hewitt "Chang version 2.0," a remarkably accurate comparison.
Like the 1989 French Open champ, Hewitt gets to balls that others can't. Extends rallies that others won't. Punishes net rushers with pinpoint passing shots. And collects more cheap points on his serve than a player his size ever should.
For the season, Hewitt has four titles and a 46-10 singles record. He leads the ATP in return games won and is second in points won off opponents' first serves.
"He has a great sense for the court," said Agassi, who lost to a 16-year-old Hewitt in 1998. "He plays aggressively, he plays defensively. He knows when to take chances, when to make sure he makes the shot.
"He relies a lot on his wheels, his footwork, and that allows him to play with a high margin for error he does it over and over again where he gets in battles and finds a way. At the end of the day, he's tough to beat."
Perhaps with that in mind, Hewitt's management agency, McLean-based Octagon, is pushing him hard during the Open. Four days before the start of the tournament, the firm reportedly invited more than 100 corporate marketers, admen and publicists to a Hewitt meet-and-greet at a posh Manhattan hotel. This week's Time Magazine features a Hewitt story, as does CNBC.
(And in what has become the true measure of endorsement arrival for the modern athlete, Microsoft reportedly will announce Hewitt as the star of a new tennis video game later this year).
For his part, Hewitt admits he is still learning to cope with the responsibilities and demands media-related and otherwise that come with being the game's biggest star.
"I've been thrown in the spotlight at a very young age, had to deal with [it] since 15 or 16, really," he said. "It's part of being a professional athlete. I think the biggest thing is trying to connect to the fans, because they don't see that much of you off the court. They basically see you play your matches."
And as for the Hewitt seen there a prickly, feisty, backward baseball cap-wearing spaz who makes rabies look tame and methamphetamines seem inadequate don't expect any changes.
At least not when Hewitt's current personality works so well.
"I'm pretty hungry out there," he said. "I don't go out there and, you know, go easy on any points. It's not something that I've deliberately told myself to do. It's just in me."


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