Cranked Up

Like a certain surly slugger, tennis star Lleyton Hewitt delights in not being delightful. His behavior is rude, crass--and the reason he's at the top of his game
March 28, 2005

If you want to observe the Most Ornery Man in Sports today, look not to the San Francisco Giants outfield. Rather, check out the Australian tennis player Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt's fury is so conspicuous and so jarring that his matches double as a sort of product placement for bile.

Hewitt is just one of a number of athletes--Barry Bonds, Yankees pitcher Kevin Brown and NASCAR bad boy Tony Stewart, to name a few--who succeed by putting their wrath to good use. En route to reaching the finals of the Pacific Life Open, Hewitt was, as usual, embracing his inner grouch, pumping his fist at his opponents and glaring at officials. He is a physically unimposing player, charitably listed at 5'11", 170 pounds. And apart from footwork that would shame Savion Glover, the 24-year-old possesses no real weapons, certainly not a percussive serve. But there is a reason he has won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, led Australia to a Davis Cup title and is ranked No. 2 in the world: He plays in a way that suggests his very salvation is riding on each point. He concedes nothing and conjures his best tennis when it matters most. "Every match with him," says Russia's Marat Safin, "is like a street fight." Adds no less than John McEnroe, "Without a doubt Hewitt is the most intense competitor in the sport right now, maybe the most intense ever."

Earlier this year in the fourth round of the Australian Open, Hewitt fought through a hip injury that would have sidelined most players, muttering, "No pain!" between points. He won in five sets, returned two days later and willed himself to win in a four-hour match. Put simply, you will not find another athlete with more--pick your anatomical metaphor--guts, heart, stones.

When members of Hewitt's camp pronounce him "the Jimmy Connors of this generation," the comparison is an apt one. Like Connors, the exceptional combativeness that makes Hewitt so alluring is accompanied by an exceptional gracelessness that makes him so repelling. Hewitt snarls and swears and scowls and spits when he plays. No matter how accurate the calls, no chair umpire or linesperson is spared his venom. At the Australian Open he reduced a teenage ball girl to tears, screaming, "Wake up!" when she was slow to ply him with a towel. He is notorious for celebrating his opponents' routine errors by unleashing his obnoxious battle cry of "Come awwwwn"--a huge breach of etiquette. "It's going to come to fisticuffs one day, either on the court or in the locker room," says Martina Navratilova. "There's a line you don't cross, and he's crossing it."

Like Connors, Hewitt has amassed a lengthy enemies list. He is, absurdly, suing the ATP over a 2002 dispute stemming from his failure to consent to a mandatory ESPN interview. He has bitterly parted ways with two well-respected coaches. His relationship with the media ranges from nonexistent to frosty. "He is a great player, but I don't think he's the best example for the sport," says rival David Nalbandian. "He is not a gentleman."

Hewitt's Janus Face has polarized tennis fans the world over, especially in Australia. From John Newcombe to Pat Rafter, Australian players historically have been laid-back, "fair dinkum mates," known as much for their sportsmanship and geniality as for their handiwork with a racket. What to make of this new star, who has already compiled a thick CV of heroic matches but who is terminally unsporting? Even as Hewitt was reaching the 2005 Australian Open final, the nation was split. According to one newspaper poll, while a sizable contingent feels his outsized heart and winning ways trump any breaches in decorum, more Aussies characterize him as a "vain brat with no ethics or manners" than as an "outstanding Australian sportsman."

Those who wish Hewitt were a kinder, gentler soul--that, for starters, he would spell his first name backward and not yell--miss the point. The ambient dissonance is what makes him the player he is. Finding "the fire within," as Arthur Ashe called it, can be easy when you've had it rough. But how do you summon it when you grew up in a middle-class nuclear family in sleepy Adelaide? In Hewitt's case you manufacture conflict and use it as fuel. In this sense Hewitt is less a modern-day Connors than a modern-day McEnroe, the comfortable suburbanite turned junkyard dog.

We would've loved to pursue this topic with Hewitt, but characteristically he did not respond to an interview request. And his longtime management team--the folks so often left in the unenviable position of trying to defend the indefensible--couldn't help. Hewitt, you see, announced last week that he was changing representation. Still more discord, still more names for the enemies list. It ought to stoke his flame, at least for the next few months.

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