A lesson from Hewitt for Sourav Ganguly

ROHIT BRIJNATH

IN Sourav Ganguly's magnificent journey to where he is, captain of India, cynicism has been a constant co-passenger. Occasionally he has believed he is rid of it, till it nudges him, like a flea dancing in his collar or a nail in the shoe, a reminder it is still there.

As a young debutant he was savaged by critics, met with a contempt he scarcely deserved. It has softened since but not left him yet (now the disapproval is for different reasons), and older and surer of himself mostly he bears it better.

Recently, though, he hinted at it, jocularly of course, when he said: "Probably I am the most hated captain also. Anybody who can read and write can find it out."

Other teams, Australia specifically and England possibly too, are scornful of his manner, though it has become tiresome listening to hard men adopting a holy stance. Such a thing as the Australian finishing school is yet to exist. Yet censure for Ganguly exists within his own borders. His imperious manner discomforts people: it is said, as captain and Test batsman, he has done little recently to earn it.

But public, and media, and even opponents', attitudes alter. Opinions are not so much reversed but revised. Performance, you see, is hard to argue with. An athlete's ability to overcome odds, to stubbornly resist conventional wisdom that he is a limited talent, may not be enough to forgive his tedious behaviour, but it can overshadow it. And Lleyton Hewitt is a stunning example of such a turnaround. Hewitt's off court immaturity leaves Ganguly, in comparison, in line for a sainthood. Those who admire Hewitt the man would fit in a coffin with room left over. He has been painted as a obnoxious upstart and such tar is not easily removed.

In that regard, Hewitt is unconcerned. Recently, in America, the ATP apparently asked him to do a promotional interview. Hewitt's response was to command a list of those attending the press conference with the right to strike off the names of those, presumably, whose writings/opinions he did not much care for. His demand was predictably refused, Sampras took his place, and a search is on to post him a copy of Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends And Influence People.

Yet Hewitt has offset his surliness with a triumphant maturity on court. In that context, he has befuddled his critics.

For a player whose unenlightened conduct suggests the word heathen, it is ironic that Hewitt's play should make us draw on biblical references. He is tennis's David, to Safin and most everyone else's Goliath. But playing David endlessly can be tiring, and eventually Hewitt's slingshot, in his case speed and tenacity, would, it was presumed, lose its effect. How long could he run, how many passing shots could he construct? More than we dared imagine.

Hewitt has met suggested flaw with an artful reply. It was said he lacked a pivotal weapon but his bruised opponents tell another tale. It was noted that domination equals a crushing serve yet he has damaged egos without one. It was suggested his retrieving style was altogether one-dimensional yet he adroitly turns dour defence into mesmerising attack. It was claimed that the sacking of his coach Darren Cahill signified arrogance and parental interference, yet his game has rolled on without the barest of hiccups. He has done what he does best: he has run down every derisive word spoken about him.

Simply, Hewitt has made us all reappraise him. There is little he cannot do on court, and even less that he doesn't do well. Grade him on technique and timing, stroke production and shot selection, balance and movement, angles invented and passes made, anticipation and courtcraft, and only bias would ensure he did not get an A+. Every perceived absent inch and deficient muscle has been adequately compensated for. He may not be elegant (as I wrote in my earlier column), but he is effective.

Hewitt has not so much won admirers as he has shut up the cynics. Affection is still not bestowed but he has earned a grudging respect. If Ganguly's bat were to speak as authoritatively and he resumes his place among the world's leading Test batsmen; if he does not so much win Tests but leads with a poise and intent; if he were to find a way there, criticism would cease to be such a dogged fellow traveller. Some will not like him still, but they will have less to say.

Ganguly aside, spring is not yet over, the season young, and Hewitt has, beyond salvaging a reputation, infused thrill into men's tennis which recently has had all the appeal of a midnight re-run of The Bold and the Beautiful. The face of the game has changed, and the Australian is it.

Tennis has been for a while in search of a dominant player. Sampras relinquished that label in end 1998, and like a painting left in the sun too long has turned into a faded masterpiece. Agassi picked it up in 1999, winning Wimbledon and the US Open, easing to year end World No.1, inexplicably, for the first time in a lengthy career. Then his game spluttered, and while his art is undiminished these days, he cannot lay claim to being the future.

Gustavo Kuerten was No.1 in end 2000, but it confirmed that the computer's math was unconvincing. The Brazilian is a genial fellow, but his vulnerability on grass, indoor and hard court diluted his accomplishment. In between, Marat Safin, huffed and puffed, pouted too much and glittered too little. The 'best' is a burden: Safin had the shoulders but not the mental muscle to bear it.

This was not necessarily good for tennis. All sports require a leading man, a setter of new standards, an advertisement for progress. Golf prayed long for Tiger, and he has invigorated the game, and so too his fellow golfers. When a man wears the crown, the chasing pack turns in his direction with a common ambition to knock it off. All sorts of furies are unleashed. But beating Safin became commonplace, so too Kuerten, and Federer was taking his time. Defeating Hewitt (though Tiger he is not) has become an altogether more arduous proposition.

A few weeks ago, Tim Henman, his face bloodless after a Hewitt manhandling, said the Australian was the player the locker room looked up to. Hewitt appeared uncomfortable with the word 'dominance'; a bristling fellow for once coy. Admitting ownership to that word, he knew, has its own inherent dangers.

But the facts are plain. In the past six months on tour he has lost four matches, and won the US Open, Tokyo outdoor, year-end Masters, San Jose and Indian Wells. He has beaten Agassi and Sampras, Safin and Roddick, every gun young and old.

He is, indisputably, the game's best player. And in some senses, he's earned his strut.