x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Winning defies popularity for Lleyton Hewitt at US Open tennis

Controversial tennis player Lleyton Hewitt has piped down and is back in solid form at Flushing Meadows.

Lleyton Hewitt is playing his best tennis at the US Open since a quarter-final run in 2006. Matthew Stockman / AFP
Lleyton Hewitt is playing his best tennis at the US Open since a quarter-final run in 2006. Matthew Stockman / AFP

Has the world gone completely mad or has it just developed a soft spot for Lleyton Hewitt?

Last year, while surfing through Wimbledon on TV, I came across a first-round match between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Hewitt.

It was so strange to see, one, that Hewitt was still playing and two, he was playing in a game that was so low-key when it could, given the personalities, have been a really big game.

It felt good remembering a player who once threatened to rule the world wearing a baseball cap backwards, only a pimple or two removed from being a moody teenager.

It seemed like a valedictory moment.

Soon, I thought, Hewitt would be done, dusted and gone. There would be a retirement and we would acknowledge a man who skirted on the crest of greatness, before being swallowed by the greatest age of men's tennis.

The problem with Hewitt is that he seems to have been driven his entire life by the need to prove everybody else completely wrong.

So, of course he has not gone anywhere. In fact, he is at another grand slam and this time he is making sure everybody knows it.

This week he has reached the fourth round of the US Open, eliminating the No 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro along the way. This is only the second time since Wimbledon 2009 that he has won three matches at a major, and this is his best US Open since reaching the quarter-finals in 2006.

But way more remarkable than his performances, more than his defiance of his own body, more than being 32, is the fact that he is right now a crowd favourite. That is right: Lleyton Hewitt, popular tennis star. How did that happen?

Remember that Hewitt? Thatis the one, the charmer who asked the umpire to look at an African-American linesman who was foot-faulting him and then to his opponent James Blake and said. "Look at him and you tell me what the similarity is."

That was, incidentally, at the US Open.

Or the one who lamented the "stupidity" of the Australian public at a press conference; or called an umpire "spastic"; or was voted the 10th-most-hated athlete in the world by GQ Magazine in 2006 (an Argentine newspaper called him the country's fifth-most hated sportsman after a Davis Cup tie).

Hewitt was not just difficult or abrasive. He was a bully and so mouthy that he could have been part of a Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting cricket side at his peak, that annoying kid at short leg who is the last thing a batsman needs as he faces up to the barbs and bombs of Shane Warne.

And now, suddenly, redemption and the crowds are behind him? Is it because he is tennis-old and sport cannot help but be a sucker for old guys, especially at the US Open?

Crowds there loved Jimmy Connors all the way to the semi-finals in 1991 and then did the same with Pete Sampras all the way to the title in 2002.

Has he actually mellowed a little? Or is it just that he has not said anything really offensive for a while?

Maybe it helps that he is a father and is travelling with three kids: "It's a bit of a travelling circus," he said. "It's not always easy because there's not a lot of free time. But my eldest kids, they're old enough to understand what dad is doing for a living."

In beginning to appear more human, that is not quite up there with adopting a Third World village, but it is a start and it is almost sweet to hear him say it.

But in a sad, not yet fully understood way, he is a representative of lost sporting glory, both his own and that of his country.

Where once we used to greet an Australian sportsman with awe, fear and a little envy, we have been reduced to feeling love and a little sympathy.

It is at least comforting to imagine that Hewitt probably does not care, as Mats Wilander, in wonderful bluntness, told The Australian. "I'm sure when he was No 1, no one liked him.

"He fought harder than them, he beat them, he was ruthless. That can rub people up the wrong way.

"He doesn't need to be popular. He's a winner. You don't play this sport to be a nice guy. Not everyone can do it like Roger Federer … Lleyton is getting more respect now, I agree, because what he's doing is incredible. Tennis needs him. But he always had nothing but respect from me."

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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