Courage has its own beauty

Published : Oct 04, 2003 00:00 IST

Imagine if we had a choice, if we could pick a time, a place, any teams and any players that we wished, and had them perform at our command?


Imagine if we had a choice, if we could pick a time, a place, any teams and any players that we wished, and had them perform at our command?

Perhaps we might choose a stadium that echoes with history, we might decide it must be on an afternoon kissed by the sun, we might pick David Beckham just to marvel at how a man kicks a ball around street corners, or Ernie Els show-off his swing that's so stylish he must have ordered it from Giorgio Armani, or Zinedine Zidane, whose foot jugglery so challenges belief that we rewind tapes to be convinced that he actually did what we just thought he did.

The ability of the some athletes to move us, to stir the senses, is like a powerful aphrodisiac. As much as skill in itself attracts, it is so much better when it is accompanied by elegance. Sport as the art form, sport laced with flair, sport resonating with dazzle.

What makes these men exceptional is that they make sport look easy, as if they were genetically designed to perform with such polish, presenting themselves as sort of artists of effortlessness. Journalists quote poets in an attempt to define them, crowds "oooh" in unison, rivals like Australian captain John Fitzgerald look at Roger Federer and say "Goodness, what a talent Roger is. What he can do with a ball, it's like a magic wand in his hand."

These athletes would find themselves on most people's lists. But you wouldn't, ever, never, unless you were some closet practitioner of masochism, unless your idea of fun is watching scaffolding being built, pick Lleyton Hewitt as someone to watch.

Or so I thought.

Hewitt on court is as elegant as a dockside worker in heavy boots auditioning for Swan Lake, he has all the grace of startled weasel. If his sport was graded for aesthetics he'd be fortunate there's no mark under zero. But on that Sunday, on an afternoon washed by the sun, against Roger Federer in the Davis Cup semi-finals, he stirred the heart more than any athlete has for a while. For inside an ugly player lives the most compelling of spirits.

It was reminder that no beauty, surely, rivals that of courage. Nothing is as powerful, or as splendid as a competitor who does not surrender. Sheer guts has its own savage charm, it turns the ugliest of competitors into something glorious.

Against Federer, Hewitt was two sets to love down, he was down 3-5 in the third, he was being made to look like a mere prop in a piece of majestic Federer theatre. Defeat was calling his name, but the kid had gone deaf. Somewhere within him a voice said "It's not over," and as he played on, and fought back and won, he let us hear it, too.

Perhaps somewhere in Hewitt's new many-million-dollar mansion in Adelaide, amidst the gym room, and the cupboards crammed with trophies, is a bookshelf. In it perhaps will be a dictionary, and you get the feeling there will be a page missing from the L section, and the D one, and B, pages just torn out, ripped away, crumpled, tossed aside.

It is not accidental but deliberate, for these are the pages that have the word "lose" and "defeat" and "beaten." These are the words Lleyton Hewitt does not understand. He has no use for them, he does not want them around him, as if they sap his spirit, somehow weaken his resolve.

Of course, he loses, in fact he has lost consistently this year, to all manner of players, but no man you think takes defeat so personally, as if his manhood is under question, as if it to lose gives a reason to the hateful press to write something more derogatory about him. When Swiss captain Marc Roseet mentioned after the first day that Hewitt was not the player he was two years ago, you could almost see the Australian's face scrunching into a snarl.

Hewitt wears this hate of losing like body armour, his sweat smells of defiance, his entire body seems to quiver with insolence. He said later, after his exhausting match, that he is a different man in Australian colours, that he was spurred on by compatriot Pat Cash's 2-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 win over Mikael Pernfors in Melbourne, in 1986, that won the Davis Cup for Australia. But in truth, this fellow who probably drinks battery acid at changeovers and brushes his teeth with a wire brush, required no inspiration. Indeed, he inspires himself.

And as he ran down balls against Federer, accelerated his shot-making, abandoned his flirtation with errors, something strange occurred.

Suddenly, Federer, who had not lost his last 10 Cup matches, looked like some fanciful artist who had run out of paint, he appeared bewildered, that his dexterity had no answer to such valour, that his shining skill had been blunted by sheer force of will. His face was a study not so much in despair as incomprehension.

It was in a way for this writer the best moment of a sporting year, a defining moment. For as much as Federer was a celebration of sporting man's continuous ability to create, in the exquisite levels he can take the game of tennis too, Hewitt was honouring the sporting warrior's ability to push himself further than we believe possible, extending the boundaries of courage.

For that day at least, as Hewitt came back to beat Federer 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5, 6-1 and propelled Australia into its 47th Davis Cup final, resolve had extinguished flair.

At the end, Hewitt was on his knees, but only after he had brought Federer to his. Both men were in tears. And they were not alone.

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