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Local hero

Aussies have love-hate relationship with Hewitt

Click here for more on this story
Posted: Thursday January 18, 2001 10:33 AM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

MELBOURNE, Australia -- I was barely in Australia for 10 minutes when I was asked to choose sides in the current most divisive national issue. It had nothing to do with Aboriginal rights, free trade or whether Vegemite is an acquired taste or the nastiest food this side of head cheese. No, the cab meter hadn't even turned over when the driver turned around and asked earnestly: "So you're here for the tennis: What do you think out our Lleyton Hewitt? "

Not unlike being pregnant, there's no middle ground with respect to Hewitt. You either love his fighting spirit, his fist-pumping intensity and his demonstrative passion, or you despise the whole shtick with every fiber of your being. Australians want to like Hewitt. Really, they do. They're even willing to overlook the time he called sports fans in this country "idiots." With Pat Rafter pondering retirement and Davis Cup truant Mark Philippoussis reliably unreliable, Hewitt is the country's next great hope. Still a month shy of 20, he has already helped Australia to a Davis Cup title, he has reached a Grand Slam semifinal and he is a fixture in the top 10. Really, they want to like him.

But his whole persona is so quintessentially anti-Australian, it's hard to countenance. Picture Crocodile Dundee going clubbing. Or try to imagine Rod Laver or Roy Emerson pounding his chest after hitting a routine winner or yelling, "Come On, Rock!" -- the nickname Hewitt, a self-proclaimed Sylvester Stallone buff, bestowed on himself -- when his opponent double-faults. Last year at Wimbledon Rafter, a dyed-in-the-sheep's-wool Aussie if ever there was one, remarked that Down Under "you're either laid back or you're considered a d---head." No one has ever accused Hewitt of being laid back.

The best and worst of Hewitt were on display in Rod Laver Arena Thursday afternoon here when the seventh seed took on Tommy Haas in a riveting second-round match. After falling into an 0-5 hole after 18 minutes, Hewitt looked more like Frank Stallone than Sly. Retreating to his corner with his head hung low, he metamorphosed into a champ. Unleashing penetrating strokes, retrieving balls with feline quickness and winning every big point, he ran off seven straight games to take the first set.

After falling behind a break in the second set, he again dug deep. Hewitt broke back and forced a tiebreaker, all the while fist-pumping like a young Jimmy Connors, beating his heart like a mourner and swaggering like he owned the arena. In the 'breaker, Haas missed an easy volley and then double-faulted. Up set point, Hewitt hit a cold-blooded, top-spin lob over the German's head. Before the ball alighted within a foot of the baseline, the Australian was already midway through a self-congratulatory ritual. Watching Hewitt's extended end-zone dance, Harold Solomon, the understated former pro, echoed the sentiments of a nation: "You either love him or hate him."

On reflection, perhaps, this alone is reason enough to like the guy: On a day when Gustavo Kuerten became just the fourth top-seeded player to fall before the third round, on a day when fifth-seeded Yevgeny Kafelnikov bitched about not making enough money, Hewitt's fire was thrown into particularly sharp relief. If Born to Be Mild is the current anthem of the ATP, there is something refreshing about a player who competes with -- and arouses -- as much passion as Hewitt. In the end, we'll take that over the blithe insouciance of many of his colleagues. Even if Hewitt's antics are sometimes less reminiscent of Rocky than they are of Over the Top.

Short volleys

Despite the hype generated by Hewitt, it wasn't a banner week for Australian tennis. First, Rafter intimated that this might be his last year on tour. Then Jelena Dokic announced she would play as a Yugoslav. The country's other young female hope, Alicia Molik, lost her first match 6-0, 6-0. The most recent setback came when veteran Jason Stoltenberg fell to Augustin Calleri and announced he was considering hanging it up as well. ... Oracene Williams was so riveted by daughter Venus' second-round dustup with Meghann Shaughnessy that she was spotted sleeping during the match. ... From the Bad Luck Dept.: Defending women's doubles champs Lisa Raymond and Rennae Stubbs had the misfortune of drawing Martina Hingis and Monica Seles in the first round. Hingis and Seles won in straight sets. ... Gossip note: Roger Federer, a potential top-10 player by year's end, is dating fellow Swiss Miroslava Vavrinec. Federer advanced with a solid win over Nicolas Escude. ... No joke: There is a 15-year-old ballboy here named Cosmo Kramer. No word on whether he'll be allowed to work Seles' matches.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will file daily reports through the end of the Australian Open. Click here to send a question to his Mailbag.

Related information
Hewitt escapes 5-0 deficit; wins in straight sets
Rusedski downs top seed Kuerten in epic encounter
Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag: More foot-in-mouth disease
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