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Norman is showing plenty of heart

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Posted: Wednesday January 26, 2000 10:06 AM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

MELBOURNE -- They're still abuzz here about Monday's "upset" when Magnus Norman took out plucky Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round. Having entered the match with the longest winning streak on tour this year (13 straight matches), Hewitt, a ponytailed teenager who has yet to bump into modesty, has captivated his home country. No less a bloke than Pat Rafter (remember him?), writing a guest column for a local paper this week, predicted that Hewitt would be squaring off against either Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi in the final. After Hewitt humiliated Alex Corretja 6-0, 6-0, 6-1, queues 10 deep formed at the betting booth, folks putting their money on the upstart to become Australia's first champ here since Mark Edmondson in the mid-'70s.

But as good as Hewitt is, the match was no upset at all. Norman, the 12th seed, may have the Q rating of a fern, but as he put it after Monday's match, "I'm a not a bad player myself, either." Quite an understatement. In fact, he is a player who won five titles last year, took the trophy last week in Auckland and has been a house afire here in Melbourne. Endowed with heavy baseline artillery, top-tier foot speed, and a mean return, Norman has found the slick surface to his liking. Unlike fellow Swede Thomas Enqvist, he can adjust his game in times of need and is a master of changing the pace to upset his opponents' rhythm. In his quarterfinal "Magnus Opus" last night against Nicolas Kiefer, who somehow manager to get seeded fourth, Norman simply refused to let the man on the other side of net come up for air, eliminating the German in four sets.

Though he's only 23, Norman's career has already been freighted with drama. At the 1997 French Open, he was beating Sampras in the third round when his heart went aflutter. After an injury timeout, he finished off the world's No. 1 player, but post-match tests indicated that he suffered from a heart-valve condition. Corrective surgery followed and now, like a tennis-playing Bill Bradley, the condition is more a source of annoyance than anything else. "I don't want to talk about it because everything is fine," he says. "I'm healthy and that's the most important thing, I think."

If Norman has yet to engrave his name on the greater public consciousness, he has cultivated his band of followers. A raucous group of fans has been appearing at his matches, their faces painted with Sweden's colors, toting a banner that, inexplicably, reads: SEX, DRUGS AND M. NORMAN. Whatever. M. Norman is not sure what to make of the sign, but he appreciates the support and hopes they'll be on hand for his next match. Against second-seeded Yevgeny Kafelnikov -- an easy winner earlier in the day over Younes El-Aynaoui -- Norman will have his work cut out for him. For now, the little-known player with the defective heart is in first Grand Slam semifinal, still ticking.

Quick volleys

The interminable third set between Conchita Martinez and Elena Likhovtseva lasted nearly one-and-a-half times as long as Martina Hingis' subsequent 6-1, 6-1 drubbing of Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario . ... Win or lose in the semis against Hingis -- and I'll do a swan dive in the Yarra River if it's the former -- Martinez plans to stay in Australia for a few more days. A budding wine connoisseur, she has designs to tour Australian vineyards after the tournament. ... At least five women -- Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Corina Morariu, Rennae Stubbs and Debbie Graham -- injured their stomach muscles this week. What gives? All suspect it happened while adjusting to hit ball tosses that got caught up in the wind. ... Midway through Hingis' match, an impassioned (read: intoxicated) fan intoned: "Martina, you're my blackberry muffin." Told later what precisely the fan had said, Hingis was oddly appreciative. "Blackberry muffin? I like that. That's cute." ... Sometimes it seems that Chris Woodruff can't answer a question without making a reference to golf, the sport he played inveterately while rehabbing his knee two years ago. After losing to Sampras in straight sets last night, he invoked basketball metaphor instead: "I feel like I just went one-on-one with Michael Jordan. "

Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will file daily from the Australian Open. Don't forget to submit a question to his Tennis Mailbag.

Related information
Tuesday's On the Court: Capriati is no longer tennis' troubled teen
Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag: Australia on my mind
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