- Joel Drucker
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A tennis player competes by himself, but in many ways, he is an extension of those surrounding him. For former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, that's a potentially positive premise.
Hewitt's recently hired coach, Tony Roche, had split with Roger Federer this spring. At one level, joining up with Hewitt was a 180-degree shift for Roche. He had left tennis' reigning king -- a man with all the weapons -- to a deposed ruler with but a few holdings and a world ranking of 20 this week.
But in other ways, Roche's alliance with his fellow Australian was precisely in character. Federer and Hewitt each will eventually join Roche in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Both the Swiss and the Australian rank among the greatest clutch players of the 21st century. To be sure, Federer's dominance has been epic compared to the brief, boutique-like tenure at the top Hewitt enjoyed, a tiny window between Sampras and Federer.
Yet Hewitt's value on the tennis stock market could well be stronger than his ranking reveals. Though his only tournament title this year came at the Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas in March, in all of the Slams, Hewitt has competed with trademark tenacity. At the Australian Open, he lost a tight four-set, third-round match to eventual finalist Fernando Gonzalez. In Paris, he and Rafael Nadal took nearly three hours to complete a straight-sets battle in the round of 16, a repeat of an even longer match they played the year before at the same stage. And at Wimbledon, he advanced to the same stage, competing in a brutalizing 4-hour, 12-minute war versus Novak Djokovic, but going down 7-6 (10), 7-6 (2), 4-6, 7-6 (5).
As Djokovic said after that match, "I was aware of the fact that he's one of the most difficult players in today's tennis to play against on this surface. He won Wimbledon already. He knows what it feels like to play big matches in front of the full stadium. I knew I had to be really 100 percent physically on the first place ready if I have any intentions of winning this match."
Hearing such praise from a man who's unquestionably the third-best player of 2007 vividly testifies to Hewitt's skill.
The addition of Roche to his corner is inspired. Tempting as it is to think that at age 62, Roche might be out of touch with today's game, his approach is classic: it never goes out of style. The man called "Rochey" is deeply beloved. Chris Lewis, a 1983 Wimbledon finalist, worked with Roche for four years and said, "Tony embodies the essence of the old-school Australian values and tradition: hard work and understatement."
Granted, Hewitt's on-court vocalizing doesn't make him a poster boy for understatement. But in some vital ways, he has changed much in the past couple of years. There was a time when the most visible people surrounding Hewitt were his mother and father. That this happened to coincide with his time as the world's best is but one part of what back then made him both effective and combustible.
Five years ago this week, Hewitt was ranked No. 1 in the world -- and riding a fast-paced river of emotion he may one day look back on with regret. Already distrustful of the media due to a series of misunderstandings with Australian journalists early in his career, as he advanced to tennis' pinnacle it was painfully clear that while Hewitt was a grand master in the art of competition, in matters of media and communication he was an infant. For journalists seeking to understand what made this great player tick, dealing with his management firm and parents was one royal pain in the butt.
The ATP knew how combustible things could get around Hewitt too. But the tour also had its obligations. Prior to each Tennis Masters event, one commitment calls for the major seeds to conduct a simple 10-minute interview with ESPN that's then cut up into short sound bites for airing during the week. But at the 2002 Tennis Masters event in Cincinnati, Hewitt emphatically refused to do the interview, triggering a series of threats, statements and potential fines that cascaded into Hewitt suing the ATP for defamation of character. Not until 2006 did the two parties settle. As Hewitt spent thousands of dollars in court fees, it was only natural to question his judgment. A little paranoia may be useful on the court, but to carry this into an epic struggle was more than a bit much.
During that 2002 blizzard, Hewitt's camp was horrific. His management firm was occasionally helpful, often elusive. Hewitt's father, Glynn, was exceptionally hostile toward journalistic inquiries. On at least one occasion, Hewitt's painful level of non-cooperation jettisoned a major national magazine cover story. It was too bad, because in many ways Hewitt's counterpunching style made him a fan favorite on the order of Jimmy Connors and Michael Chang. But back then, Hewitt seemed intent on making things exceptionally complicated.
Now he's cut the clutter to a minimum. It's encouraging to see that Hewitt's parents are far less visible, replaced by friendly wife Bec and daughter Mia. Add to that the power of Roche, and Hewitt appears to have his house in order more than he ever has.
"One big thing about Tony," Lewis said, "is that he's subtle but reality-based. It's all factual, it's all real. He'll command exceptional respect from Hewitt."
At 26, Hewitt remains a superb competitor, a man who will leave every ounce of blood on the court. Leave the whining to Marat Safin. For all that's gone on before away from the court, Hewitt will look back with no regret about what he did when he competed. With a respected new coach in his corner, he's out to prove once again that he'll leave nothing on the table.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.