Hewitt's petulance has its price

ROHIT BRIJNATH

MEN'S tennis does not have Anna Kournikova or Daniela Hantuchova, whose shade of lipstick is of more value than the colourfulness of their game. Men's tennis doesn't have the Williams sisters, who are in turn lethal, exotic, amusing. Men's tennis doesn't have high-pitched rivalries, it doesn't have hair-pulling (they probably would if Safin and Hewitt had any), it doesn't have a Capriati-like story of redemption (come back, Goran).

Men's tennis has Grand Slam winners like Thomas Johansson and Albert Costa, and good for them, but let's be honest, for some people the Vienna Women's Knitting Championships has more appeal (or let's be nice and just say Becker and Edberg they're not).

Men's tennis is undergoing a generational shift, but instead of Marat Safin writing Pete Sampras' epitaph, he's scribbling his own. Men's tennis is fighting for TV audiences and sponsors against Ronaldo's soccer, Tiger Woods' golf, Shaquille O'Neal's basketball, Sammy Sosa's baseball, Michael Schumacher's formula one...

It's a time when men's tennis could do with a saviour. Instead they got Lleyton Hewitt. A kid who's a brat on court and that's fun to watch, but he's a brat off court too and that isn't.

There's something about a bruising, bleeding, boxer to Hewitt when he plays, who scraps with a fury that suggests he's in the 15th round, he's losing and the bell's about to ring. It's an edge of desperation that makes his tennis eminently watchable and, these days, he is mostly unbeatable. Except he sells his sport majestically on court and that's it, he goes home. In short, he'd rather have lunch with Saddam than sit in front of a microphone. He's a No. 1 who doesn't know what it means.

Michael Schumacher meets the press half an hour before he puts his life literally on the line. Tiger Woods destroys his Grand Slam dream with a round of rare inexactness at the British Open but stays to front the press. Sourav Ganguly knows he's in for an inquisition every press conference but mostly shows up to take the flak. But Hewitt, he goes home?

At Wimbledon, he apparently had to be begged to do a series of two-minute interviews. In Australia, most writers would prefer to choke him with their microphone cord, that's if he shows up. If he does, like at Wimbledon, he asks for some Australian writers, whose writing is not quite deferential enough, to be barred from the interview. Then this month he did it again.

ESPN broadcasts more than 250 hours of tennis in a year. They bring the game to us, they bring us Hewitt's craft, they are the vehicle of his gospel. Players are expected to do interviews with ESPN. It's part of the television company's deal.

It's also part of the players' deal with the ATP, under the Stars Program, wherein every player in the main draw must allot two hours a week to promoting himself, the game and the tour. This could mean saying thank you to sponsors who pay for the players' jet fuel, visiting sick children who see them as heroes or doing an interview for a few minutes with a smile.

Two hours a week. How tough is that? For Hewitt, alas, it's like particle physics, he can't quite work it out.

In Toronto, recently he said no to ESPN. They asked again. He said no. On the weekend before Cincinnati began, they asked for time. He couldn't find any. Hewitt said he'd met his weekly commitments. Clearly he hadn't. Then half an hour before his first round match he said he was ready. ESPN wasn't. Its interviewers, Cliff Drysdale and Patrick McEnroe were already in the booth commentating.

The ATP said it would fine Hewitt $20,000 or half his prize money (which turned out to be $103,000 because he reached the final and won $206,000). Hewitt said he'd appeal. In fairness, he needs to lose.

A petulant Hewitt said he wasn't surprised that the WTA (women's tour) was stronger than the ATP. Of course, you might expect the game's leading man to prop up his tour, not deride it. Then again, maybe he's part of the reason.

Sport's stars are incessantly pampered and continuously coddled, and mostly we don't care. Except it is one thing to be treated like a God, it's quite another to believe you're one. When Anna Kournikova was asked a distinctly inoffensive question about her confidence at Wimbledon, she ripped off her mike and sulkily stormed out of the interview. Simply, athletes are very adept at taking, but not as generous at giving. Hewitt is under the impression that he pays all his dues on court; if so, he has recently arrived here from another planet. No one's tennis is worth the $800,000 or so the U.S. Open pays its champion.

Hewitt is 21, and he's young, and Andre Agassi at that age and even older was even worse, but after a while silliness runs out of excuses. Andy Roddick, American tennis' saviour whether he likes or not, who couldn't hit a ball wrong in his first year and can't hit one right in his second (especially in the Grand Slams), still finds time for a quote and a smile, and he's not yet 20. Hewitt's supposed to set the example; not follow one.

Answering questions is a demand of fame; being a role model is a by-product of greatness. If Hewitt's bank balance has more zeroes than Ramanujan thought of, then he should prostrate himself before television companies and genuflect before corporations, for that's where the prize money comes from. He's supposed to vigorously shake the hand that feeds him, not bite it.

It's not that ESPN would ask Hewitt to lay bare his relationship with Kim Clijsters, or start their interview by saying, "Ok, now, why is it that people think you're a jerk". Repartee never gets that honest; most interviewers are former players, they know the deference drill. At best, they'd ask him about the pressure of being No. 1, the work ethic that drives him, and unless you come from Cordoba and speak no English that's not quite a test of comprehension or ingenuity.

Hewitt's insularity (his protective entourage make the presidential Secret Service appear like a welcoming party) hurts him. Worse, it hurts the game. All sports are defined by their champions, they are the advertisements that seduce sponsors and the audience. You'd think Hewitt knows enough about the sporting alphabet to figure out that M stands for Media and Marketing. It's a responsibility he doesn't want but can't avoid.

Hewitt's suspicion of the press has made them suspicious of him; the more he hides from us the less we discover his side of the story. It's a vicious circle only he can break.

Somewhere within this courageous, gifted player is an interesting man. He can't expect the world to see it if he doesn't show it.