Australian star: a hug-hate relationship

Public slow to embrace No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, who was knocked out of the Australian Open yesterday.

Australians tend to like their sports heroes in one of two forms:

There's the affable gentleman type - genial, hard-working, the kind of relentlessly cheery soul who reminds you of just how down-to-earth Australians can be. And then there's what Australians like to call the "larrikin." He, or she, of the wicked wit, a kind of anti-authoritarian and yet loveable rogue impervious to embarrassment. For the former, think Pat Rafter. For the latter, think Pat Cash.

But what happens when an Aussie hero rises to the top of the tennis world and doesn't fit either model?

That's the question Australians faced as they watched Lleyton Hewitt, the enigmatic 20-year-old who is now the world's top - ranked men's tennis player, make his bid to become the first Aussie to win the Grand Slam event in 26 years.

That bid failed yesterday when Mr. Hewitt, the top seed, crashed out of the Australian Open in the first round as the weight of the country's tennis hopes - and the after effects of illness - proved too much for him to carry.

"I'm not Superman, I can't do much about it. I did the best I could," Hewitt told reporters after yesterday's loss.

But if anything, Hewitt's loss is only likely to make the mercurial star's relationship with Australians even more interesting and the reasons behind its strange nature all the more fascinating.

Despite its reputation for lopping its stars down to size - as part of what is called the "tall poppy syndrome" - Australians do like their sporting stars to succeed.

But according to Richard Cashman, a sports historian at the University of New South Wales, there is still a lingering feeling in Australia that "Hewitt is a little different from anybody." And that has made for an uneasy relationship.

A 'fierce' patriot

Australians love his - usually - winning ways on the court and the fact that he comes armed with a fierce patriotism, Mr. Cashman says. But Hewitt has developed a reputation for keeping the Australian public, and press, at arm's length. (During one promotional appearance last week reporters were asked to stay at least 15 meters away from him and all but one of his practice sessions ahead of the Open were conducted in secret.)

Hewitt yesterday defended his decision to go into a self-imposed isolation the past few weeks.

"I would like to think that I talk the truth, the whole truth the whole time," Hewitt said. "For me to come out and say 'yeah, I'm raring to go, I can't wait'... It would have been [wrong]."

But Hewitt has over his short career also become known for outbursts that can often leave Australians blushing.

"He's almost someone that some Australians are embarrassed about," says Cashman. "You like to focus on his tennis. But some of the things Hewitt says make you squirm a bit as an Australian."

The most controversial of Hewitt's outbursts came during a second round match at last year's US Open. There, he drew accusations of racism after he complained about the "similarity" between African American player James Blake and a black line-judge, who had twice made calls against him.

Controversial calls

Hewitt later denied he was inferring any racial bias. But neither Blake nor the fans booing from the stands took kindly to the remarks. And so Hewitt's first Grand Slam win became a tainted one for many Australians, although Blake has since said he has forgiven him.

The problem for Australians was that the controversy came on the heels of others.

Earlier last year, Hewitt called an umpire "spastic" at the French Open. Then there was the time he turned on bemused fans and labeled them "stupid" for cheering for an opponent.

Yesterday, he added to the controversy

when, rather than congratulate his opponent, Spain's Alberto Martin, he lashed out at him for asking for help from a trainer in the middle of a game late in the final set.

"It would have made my chances a lot better if he'd played fair," the Australian said.

Ever since he burst on the scene as a 16-year-old in 1998 by beating Andre Agassi on his way to winning an Australian Open warmup in his hometown of Adelaide, Hewitt has been criticized for his on-court behavior.

He's vocal. He punches the air. He regularly yells out "C'mon!" as a way to pump himself up. As a result, he can often be an exciting player to watch. But there are plenty of critics who find his on-court behavior teeters on the edge of unsportsmanlike.

How yesterday's loss - and the days to come - are digested by Australians isn't clear. But to his credit, there had been a growing sense ahead of the Australian Open that Hewitt had changed since weathering the racism furor at Flushing Meadows.

Since the US Open, "the racquet bouncing ... and constant cries of 'C'mon!' have been replaced by a steely resolve to be the best, a tunnel vision where outside influences are no longer a distraction," Hewitt's former coach, Darren Cahill, noted in The Sydney Morning Herald recently.

To be fair you also have to occasionally remind yourself that while Hewitt may already be worth millions and have traveled the world for the last four years as a professional tennis player, he is still young.

"He's not yet 21! He's still a boy, basically," says Kerrin Lee, a die-hard fan who runs Hewitt's official website and occasionally bemoans the fact that he inherited the mantle of Australia's tennis hero from someone so charmingly inoffensive as Pat Rafter.

But that doesn't change the fact that Australia's relationship with Hewitt remains ambivalent at best, at least partly because of the relentless intensity that usually serves him so well on the court but can make him seem cold off the court.

Part of that intensity in recent weeks was undoubtedly the result of the pressure Hewitt was feeling as the only real Australian hope entering this year's Australian Open. Mark Philippoussis, the only other top-tier Australian player, is making a comeback from injury. Rafter has decided to take a few months off as part of what many see as the beginning of his retirement.

There are, of course, plenty of Australians who are willing to see Hewitt as more than a millionaire brat with a thumping forehand.

Rosanne Michie, the editor of Australian Tennis Magazine, argues that he represents a kind of "sassy" role model for children now taking up tennis, and as a result, will inevitably be good for the game in Australia. More so even, because of his middle-class roots.

"The fact that Lleyton is young, sassy, and emerged by virtue of his killer instinct rather than any particular privilege sets a great example for the young boys and girls in Australia," she says.

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