New York: Lleyton Hewitt's fighting spirit has helped him become a Grand Slam champion and the world's top-ranked player. It also gets him into trouble. The Australian has been fined for yelling at linesmen, lost a point for throwing a ball near an official and was criticized for what was perceived as a racially influenced outburst during a match in last year's US Open. Away from the court, though, Hewitt can be affable and even shy, seeming very little like the brash player who wears a backward baseball cap and peppers his matches with shouts of "Come on!" He's the defending champion and seeded first at the US Open, which starts on Monday. Neither Hewitt nor Venus Williams, who is trying to become the first woman to win three straight US Opens since Chris Evert took four in a row from 1975-78, plays on the opening day. Top matches on Monday include Williams' younger sister, top-ranked Serena, against Corina Morariu of the United States, who'll be playing her first Grand Slam match since returning to the tour after fighting leukemia for more than a year. Serena is aiming for her third consecutive major title, after beating Venus in the finals of the French Open and Wimbledon. Raring to go Hewitt can't wait to get on court. His first-round match is against 103rd-ranked Frenchman Nicolas Coutelot.
"I love competition and I love getting out there, working hard," Hewitt said. "To come out and compete in the toughest environments, especially the US Open, it's sort of what I put my mind to."
Listed at 1.81 meters (5-foot-11) and 67.5 kilograms (150 pounds), Hewitt is the perfect antidote to the popular notion that the modern tennis player has to be as oversized as today's rackets and can succeed only with a power game.
Hewitt wears down opponents by chasing down everything that comes across the net. He just never stops. It's superb defensive tennis, highlighted by a fantastic return and complemented by an improving serve. Last month that package made him the first baseliner to win Wimbledon since Agassi in 1992.
"I love the Grand Slams, and you don't need much motivation to get up for them," Hewitt said. "That's what I'm playing tennis for at the moment."
Trail of controvery
His smooth game comes with a snarl, however. It's as though he steps on court with a mental enemies' list containing many more names than just that of his opponent. Fans, linesmen and the media all are fair game.
Hewitt was docked $ 1,000 for calling a chair umpire at the 2001 French
Open a "spastic." He upset fans in his hometown of Adelaide, Australia, by calling them "stupid" for rooting for his underdog opponent during a 2000 match.
Most recently, the ATP Tour fined Hewitt half his winnings at a Tennis Masters Series event in Cincinnati - more than $ 100,000 - for not doing an interview with ESPN, which was broadcasting the tournament. He is appealing the penalty.
In typical fashion, Hewitt went out in his next match and beat his opponent 6-0, 6-0.
"It helps him that his natural competitiveness comes out on court," said Hewitt's coach, former tour player Jason Stoltenberg. "He's actually eased up a little bit compared to when he was younger."
During a second-round victory over James Blake in the 2001 US Open, Hewitt demanded that linesman Marion Johnson be removed after calling two foot faults. Blake and Johnson are black. "Look at him, mate," Hewitt said to the chair umpire, referring to Johnson. "Look at him and tell me what the similarity is."
Hewitt said his use of the word "similarity" referred to both faults being called by Johnson.
Hewitt and Blake could meet in the third round this year.
Winning the US Open title helped Hewitt, then 20, finish 2001 as the youngest year-end No. 1. A 45-10 match record and four tournament titles this year kept him there, putting at least a temporary stop to the merry-go-round nature of men's tennis.
Eight Grand Slam titles had been won by eight men until Hewitt added Wimbledon to his US Open breakthrough.
"If you can do it once at a Grand Slam, you can do it again," said Agassi, who is seeded sixth. "He's shown the mindset to give what it takes to be at the top."
A kinder, gentler Hewitt was on display during a clinic Saturday with local Special Olympics athletes. For an hour, in the rain, the 21-year-old Australian played points, offered tips, exchanged high-fives and drew smiles.
He even persuaded one boy to turn his cap backward. Nothing brash about that.(AP)
Topics : Tennis