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Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Hewitt: A waning agitator

Every sport needs a bad guy. Football has the New England Patriots' Bill Beli-cheat, um, sorry, Belichick. Basketball has Kobe Bryant. Baseball, with the steroids scandal, has more than its share of villains. And tennis? There is but one -- an Aussie in the fleeting moments of his career.

At 27, Lleyton Hewitt is plying his trade as a pale imitation of his once fiery self. It's not like he's going through the motions: This week, at the Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas, Hewitt was training with Andre Agassi and his former coach, Darren Cahill, in an attempt to defend his title. But Hewitt has struggled mightily in recent years, winning just one title in each of the last three years. Not bad for any ordinary bloke, but lousy for a former No. 1 (he was the youngest to reach the sport's pinnacle in 2001) and two-time Grand Slam champion.

Back then Hewitt was a certifiable cuss, with the bloodlust of Jimmy Connors. He was on top of the world, and he didn't care who he rankled with his incessant self-exhortations of Come Awwwwwwwn. His image as the game's premier agitator was defined during his infamous 2001 U.S. Open match against James Blake and refined over the years with a string of dust-ups with the tennis establishment. Surrounding himself with family, Hewitt cultivated a borderline paranoid me-against-the-world attitude. He even sued the hand that feeds him, the ATP, over an ESPN interview request that went awry. (The lawsuit was eventually dropped.)

Hewitt is hardly the typical gentlemanly Aussie like Rod Laver or Patrick Rafter. "The cap backward, explosive emotions, the controversies he runs into -- all of that suggests he may be out of that rebellious, me-first mold of player," said his countryman John Newcombe. "The way he is on court may be a little too in your face for some people."

Where is the SOB these days? He's lucky to win small events, like Vegas, and score an occasional upset. Gone, it seems, is the fire and that's a shame -- for Hewitt, of course, but also for tennis. The game has a tradition of players who have stirred it up, from Illie Nastaste and John McEnroe to Marcelo Rios. You might hate them, but you never missed a chance to see them. Like watching NASCAR, you tuned in to see the carnage.

Can Hewitt recapture his edge? Off the court, he's done two things that can suck the energy out of any man -- get married and become a father. On the court, he faces many of the same struggles as another tenacious player, Michael Chang, once did. Like Chang, Hewitt's game was built on his fast feet and tireless legs, two assets that don't age well. And like Chang, Hewitt has tried to beef up his game by hitting bigger serves and trying to end points with forceful shots instead of waiting for his opponent to make a mistake. But the results have been mixed, as Hewitt, like Chang, trades in his trademark consistency to belt a few extra winners.

The strategy ultimately didn't work for Chang. Will it work for Hewitt and get him back into the top 10, where he can once again challenge the top players and resume his position as the game's leading agitator? It's a safe bet that Hewitt doesn't care what I, or anyone else, thinks about his tennis. Like him or not, you have to respect that.