A sprinter and a stayer

ACROSS the road from the classical, Victorian era facade of the Strathmore Hotel in the heart of Adelaide, within seconds of easing ourselves into a taxi to get to the Memorial Drive tennis facility, it becomes obvious that the driver - a silver haired gentleman who is built like John Wayne - simply hates Lleyton Hewitt.

AP

''I won't watch the matches. I don't like Hewitt. He is a brat," says the driver as we make our way to the venue of the Australia-India Davis Cup tie on the eve of the match. "You can be a champion but you've got to be a good human being first."

Less than two minutes later, as we step out of the taxi on a picturesque tree-lined avenue in front of the Memorial Drive, we spot a group of anxious teenagers outside the main gate.

''I am sure Lleyton will come out this door. He has to. I saw him drive in five minutes ago. The draw is in the building next door. He has to come out now," says one young man, seeking to assure his friends and assuage their fears that their hero might give them the slip.

The starkly contrasting reactions that one of Australia's best known modern sportsmen touches off may surprise first-time visitors to that fascinating country but hardened pros in the sporting business know that what we saw and heard in Adelaide during last September's Davis Cup tie - vis a vis Hewitt - can be seen and heard in every city and town down under, from Darwin to Alice Springs to Melbourne and Sydney.

Nothing perhaps reflects the generation gap in Australian society today as does the Hewitt phenomenon, or, to be precise, the responses triggered by the Hewitt phenomenon.

While it would be ridiculous to say that everybody who adores Lleyton Hewitt is 30 and under and everybody who hates him is 40 and above, the point is, the man who won the Masters title at Shanghai last fortnight to finish No.1 for a second straight year does make way for sharply contrasting reactions.

Worshipped as a super-hero by the Generation Next and dismissed as an aberration in Australian sport by old-timers, Hewitt is certainly a sort of maverick in a nation where the average citizen follows sports with greater passion and devotion than anywhere else in the world.

Ever since he won the first of his 17 career titles in his hometown at the age of 16 years and 10 months in 1998, Hewitt has set off extreme reactions in his own countrymen. And the fact that he has consistently refused to talk to the Australian press - except during the mandatory post-match conferences that last 10 minutes - has not helped either.

In the event, everything that most people - Australian or not - know about Hewitt, or think they do, is from what they see and hear on the courts or on television screens. But there is bound to be more to a sportsperson - even someone who is boring and one-dimensional - than that.

And boring, Hewitt is not; nor is his personality uni-dimensional. It is just that he has been so deeply scarred by the hostile press he got as a teenager with attitude that he went into a shell and, even after becoming the numero uno, the man every other player looks up to, has remained steadfast in his belief that nothing was going to change even if he opened up.

This is rather unfortunate, really. For, at a time when men's tennis is not exactly is robust health in terms of fan following and pulling power around the world, a sassy young superstar like Hewitt has a duty to enlarge the game's fan base - something that is bound to happen if fans got to know more about him, more about his deepest fears, his grandest ambitions, his greatest heroes, his pet hates and his fond hopes.

And after hearing him speak in circumstances that made him relax - unlike at a Grand Slam venue or a Cup final venue - during the Davis Cup tie against India at Adelaide a few weeks ago, I certainly believe that there is more to the young man than the Australian sports press would have us believe.

Not only was Hewitt-the-worldbeater a remarkably polite and wonderfully enthusiastic man at the post-match interviews, he also showed tremendous respect for opponents he was expected to blow away and would never ever meet on the circuit, given the gulf in rankings.

And there was no hint of condescension when Hewitt praised Leander Paes' competitive instincts and spoke highly of Harsh Mankad's potential. He spent more time than he needed to as he answered questions from an Indian reporter patiently, handing out his own assessment of the Indian players' game.

Except on the third day, and that too late in the afternoon - by which time the tie was already decided and Hewitt played an Australian Rules Football game involving celebrities - he was around all the time at the tie, talking to team-mates, practising with them, egging on Wayne Arthurs when the lanky left hander was in spot of bother against Paes.

What is more, the reception that he got each time he stepped on court during the Davis Cup tie from his hometown fans was at once memorable and ecstatic. It was clear that a majority of Adelaide fans had forgiven him for a temperamental outburst on the same court two years ago when he called the spectators "stupid" on the eve of the Australian Open because they chose to cheer his opponent.

That unwise comment was one of many incidents in Hewitt's career which turned a golden boy teen sensation into an offensive bighead in two or three seasons in the perception of many, not the least the influential ones in the Australian media.

He was accused of a racist remark against a coloured linesman at the U.S.Open during a match against the black American James Blake and he once called an umpire "spastic" at the French Open.

And when all this is topped off by his let-me-chop-the-opponent-and-eat-him-up attitude on the court where he constantly punches the air and yells "Come on" in a sort of primeval frenzy, before resuming his fidgety routine of plucking at the racquet strings and pulling at his shirt sleeves, the picture of a spoilt millionarie brat with no respect for his rivals or the fans is complete.

Yet, the picture of Hewitt that the very few who know him - the very few he has allowed into his life away from the courts, and a handful who can look beyond the crude superficialities of his personality - is distinctly different.

His friends and family speak of an almost shy, yet wonderfully warm young man who loves a good laugh and who - despite his awesome talent - is remarkably normal and commendably level-headed.

It may take the vast majority of tennis fans around the world a long time to bridge the gap and begin to view Hewitt from this standpoint. But things are indeed changing, and changing pretty fast as has been evident this season.

As the young man from Adelaide lets his racquet do all the talking, it is more likely than not that seven or eight years from now, he'd have the same sort of golden halo that Andre Agassi enjoys in the twilight of his career. And Agassi too was dismissed as a jerk when he happened on us as a gifted teenager - with clothes that used to glow in the dark - in the late 1980s.

To be sure, what Hewitt has accomplished in 2001 and 2002 is nothing short of the phenomenal. A player who was thought to be too short, perhaps too skinny and who played a game that took too much out of him has surprised everyone in what is increasingly becoming a big man's game.

When he willed his way past one opponent after another before blowing a jaded Pete Sampras off the court in last year's U.S.Open final and then won the Sydney Masters to become the youngest year-end No.1, there were quite a few who believed that he was merely warming up the seat for the big hitters like Marat Safin or Roger Federer.

But even in a season that began badly for him - Hewitt contracted chicken pox and was a poor parody of himself as he lost in the first round of the Australian Open last January - the Australian has managed to pull up his socks and come up with his very best when he needed to.

While Hewitt was rather lucky at Wimbledon where, this year, the tournament resembled a $400,000 ATP event in the second week because several superstars were beaten in the first week, you can hardly hold that against him.

It was not Hewitt's fault that so many giants fell so early on the famous grass. For his part, Hewitt survived a few hiccups against the Dutchman Sjeng Schalken and then outplayed the Argentine floater David Nalbandian in the final.

But the loss to Andre Agassi in the semifinals of the U.S. Open meant he still had some way to go before he could secure the year-end No.1 ranking. And he did the right thing too to give his overworked body some rest by pulling out the Madrid Masters Series event.

No matter all that, the young man's body was still complaining when he arrived in Shanghai and he did not exactly start like a world beater.

''Every match this week was a grind," said Hewitt after beating Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain in the final at Shanghai. "There were times when I was hurting and my legs felt dead. But I sort of tried to put everything in."

That's Hewitt for you. He puts everything in, and then some more.

Not since Jimmy Connors have I seen a player who has had such a sheer hatred of losing. The young world champion from Adelaide simply cannot even consider the possibility of a loss.

This year he has finished with an impressive 61-15 win-loss record and five titles, something that has made his richer by $4,619,386.

Not long ago, tennis critics were wondering when we'd see another dominant champion - this, a year or two after Sampras had finished as the No. 1 a sixth time in a row and then faded away from the top.

While names like Safin and Federer figured in the equation, somehow Hewitt did not seem likely to don the mantle of a dominant champion. But now that he has finished No.1 a second straight year, it is going to take a lot out of his challengers to unseat him from his pedestal.

For, Lleyton Hewitt, the sprinter who has become a stayer, hates to give anything away.