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Hewitt impresses, but it hasn't all been good

Defending U.S. Open champ uses hustle, not power, but he hasn't overpowered fans, either.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002

When Lleyton Hewitt entered the scene, men's tennis had become a game of power and strength.

Players were bigger, stronger and faster than ever. Many crushed serves at 140 mph, and almost all tried to outslug opponents. Points, on every surface but clay, ended in seconds.

"For a while everybody started to think you had to be a giant to play this game," Boston Globe tennis writer and NBC commentator Bud Collins said.

Hewitt is proving those power fanatics wrong.

The 5-foot-11, 150-pound Australian is the world's top-ranked player. He has 16 career singles titles (four this year), is the defending champion at the U.S. Open and won Wimbledon this year for his second Grand Slam title.

His serve is better than average, but make no mistake, it isn't comparable to those of Pete Sampras or Andy Roddick. His game is built of determination, energy and precision, not power.

"All those people were saying tennis would be dominated by huge guys," ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale said. "That you had to be 7 feet tall and strong as an ox. He's neither one of those things. It's amazing that a player like him, that's as small as he is, can be No. 1 in the world."

How does Hewitt do it?

"His attitude, his demeanor, his single-mindedness and his focus," Drysdale said.

And don't forget about his athleticism. The 21-year-old is one of the sport's best-conditioned athletes. And he stays at the baseline, countering shots with accurate returns that often frustrate opponents.

"I'm not even sure (11-time Gland Slam singles champion Bjorn Borg) was as fast," John McEnroe said. "He covers so much ground, his energy level is so high. He intimidates people. He's not a big guy, but it's intimidating to have to deal with that speed, which makes up for him not being big."

Another asset: Hewitt's mental approach.

"He's remarkable," three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker said. "He knows when the big points are coming, which is rare to see at 21. He knows when to push it and when to play hard."

Hewitt is part Michael Chang, part Andre Agassi and part Jimmy Connors.

Like Chang, the 1989 French Open champion, Hewitt is undersized but quick and gritty. Like Agassi, observers say he has great passion for the game, tremendous ball sight and a remarkable return of serve. His similarity with Connors is attitude.

"You've got to like the way he plays," Collins said. "He leaves it on the court. I've never seen him dog it. He's really a worker. He hurries your game. He makes guys feel like they've got to hit better shots because they know he's going to get to the ball. People try to hit great shots against him, and that's when they make errors. There's really a lot to like about his game."

And some things not to like.

Hewitt's personality perhaps has been the one thing that has kept him from having a larger fan base, Collins and Drysdale said. Like Connors early in his career, Hewitt has rubbed some the wrong way.

He was fined $103,000 by the ATP Tour three weeks ago for refusing an interview with ESPN before a first-round match in Cincinnati.

Hewitt also drew the ire of some at last year's Open.

Playing James Blake, one of the event's few black players, he complained after being called for two foot faults by a black linesman and requested the official be removed. Television microphones caught Hewitt saying to the chair umpire, "Look at him. Look at him and you tell me what the similarity is. Just get him off the court."

The incident drew boos from the crowd and, later, an apology from Hewitt. Still, he denied the comment had racist motives.

The next week he won his first Grand Slam title.

"He hasn't really endeared himself to people, and maybe he never will," Collins said. "It took Connors a while to do it. He came on the scene in 1972, but it really wasn't until 1978 that he started to warm up to the New York crowd."

Hewitt has changed the way many feel about men's tennis. Time will tell if he changes the way many feel about him.

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