NEW YORK — Forget Paris in the spring. For Lleyton Hewitt, there’s nothing like Flushing Meadows in the fall.
Bright lights. Raucous crowds. Smashmouth tennis. All of it unique to the U.S. Open. All of it a flashback to Hewitt’s first major title.
“It’s a buzz walking into any one of the four Grand Slams,” Hewitt said. “But to come back to places that you’ve played well at, especially big tournaments, it’s always — probably gives you a little more confidence when you get out there and the memories come back.”
The Open champion two years ago, Hewitt needs all the confidence — and mojo-infused memories — he can muster. And then some.
Coming off a summer of discontent, the 22-year-old Australian enters his second-round match against Korea’s Hyung-Taik Lee as the tournament’s No.6 seed, a muzzled version of the scrambling, snarling, fist-pumping force who dominated the men’s game for much of the previous two seasons.
“Basically, for the first time in his career, he’s had a little bit of a lull,” said Australia’s Todd Woodbridge, the No.4 doubles seed and Hewitt’s Davis Cup teammate. “I’m amazed he hasn’t had one before.”
As a puny 16-year-old who needed a safety pin to hold up his shorts — no, really — the precocious Hewitt announced his tennis arrival in 1998, upsetting Andre Agassi en route to his first ATP Tour title. Three years later, Hewitt pummeled Pete Sampras in the Open final, capturing his first Grand Slam.
Hewitt followed that with a Wimbledon title last summer, becoming the first baseliner to triumph at the All England Club since Agassi in 1992. From November 2001 through June, Hewitt spent all but one week at the top of the ATP rankings, winning nine tournaments while establishing himself as one of the Tour’s fiercest — and prickliest — competitors.
Case in point: During a 2001 Open match against James Blake, who is black, Hewitt was called for a pair of foot faults by an African-American linesman. Agitated, Hewitt approached the chair umpire, demanded that the linesman be removed and yelled, “Look at him, and you tell me what the similarity is!”
The remarks touched off a media frenzy and accusations of prejudice. Hewitt later apologized, stating that he had cleared the air with Blake and that his comments weren’t racial.
Still, the imbroglio aptly reflected Hewitt’s punchy persona, the Marty McFly-like fighting spirit that has allowed a 5-foot-11, 150-pound gnat to stand out in a sport dominated by taller, heavier men.
“I’d like to think that I’m pretty mentally tough, probably one of the more mentally tough players out there,” Hewitt said. “I think with my style of game, that’s one advantage or one edge that I probably have over a lot of guys. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been able to get and do and achieve everything that I’ve had so far.”
Lately, however, Hewitt’s edge has been dulled. He won a pair of hardcourt titles in the spring, then suffered a third-round upset loss to Spain’s Tommy Robredo on the red clay of Roland Garros.
At Wimbledon, Hewitt fell immediately to Croatian qualifier Ivo Karlovic, becoming the third defending champion to lose in the first round of a Grand Slam in the open era.
“The last three years, I haven’t lost before a semifinal,” the stunned Hewitt said afterward. “I’ve got to try and get this out of [my] mind as much as possible.”
Hewitt’s summer has been equally erratic. After reaching the final of a tournament in Los Angeles, he lost early at subsequent Masters Series events in Cincinnati and Montreal, succumbing to the likes of Belarus’ Max Mirnyi and Belgium’s Xavier Malisse.
In the L.A. final, Hewitt failed to convert a trio of match points against South Africa’s Wayne Ferreira, losing in three sets.
“The matches I lost over the last couple of weeks, I feel like I’ve played a set, a set and a half of real good tennis,” Hewitt said. “I just haven’t taken my chances.”
Hewitt maintains that his current problems are technical — an errant forehand here, a missed backhand there. In particular, he points to his oft-inconsistent serve.
In a four-set loss to Agassi in last year’s Open semifinal, for instance, Hewitt connected on 40 percent of his first serves; with the second set on his racket, he unloaded a double fault.
“First-serve percentage, getting cheaper points on my first serve, that’s one of the main key aspects,” Hewitt said. “Even when I was No.1 and won two Slams and the Masters and everything else, that was an area of my game I felt like I could work on. At the moment, that’s still an area. It’s just little things, trying to piece it all together.”
Noting that Hewitt’s game depends less on an overpowering serve than a relentless return game — Hewitt led the tour last season in return games won — many observers believe the Aussie’s woes stem from off-court distractions.
Jason Stoltenberg, Hewitt’s coach for 18 months, abruptly quit two weeks before Wimbledon, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Shortly thereafter, Hewitt filed a $1.5million defamation lawsuit against the ATP, claiming he was unfairly fined $106,000 for not giving an interview to ESPN at the Cincinnati tournament last August.
The fine was later reduced to $20,000 on appeal but not before Hewitt repeatedly ripped Tour management, calling the ATP a “circus” and vowing to reduce his playing schedule this season.
Hewitt’s suit also charged that a Tour representative tried to convince Hewitt to refuse a drug test, a move that could have resulted in a two-year ban from tennis. In response, the ATP released a statement dismissing Hewitt’s allegations as “without merit.”
According to Woodbridge, the ongoing feud could be affecting Hewitt’s play.
“Sometimes, that’s what drives people,” he said. “They feed off that energy. But I think right now, Lleyton needs to feed off winning.”
Whether Hewitt can feast at the Open remains to be seen. During his first-round victory over Romania’s Victor Hanescu, Hewitt appeared energized: Pouncing on a Hanescu second serve, he stepped well inside the baseline, then pounded a forehand return winner down the line.
Pumping his fist, Hewitt turned to the crowd and bellowed “C’mon!” — the same fiery gesture the former Open champ makes on the cover of the ATP media guide, a familiar move inspired by familiar surroundings.
“I feel this is a different tournament to Cincinnati or Montreal or even LA,” Hewitt said. “This is a Grand Slam. This is what you play for. This is the big time. You want to go out there and save your best for these tournaments. For me, it’s a good opportunity to forget some of those losses.”
And perhaps notch a few more memorable wins.