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Off court, I’m friendly

An exclusive conversation with Lleyton Hewitt, who will be the chief attraction at the Kingfisher Airlines Open in Mumbai next week.

india Updated: Sep 20, 2007 00:37 IST
Akshay Sawai

Justine Henin says, “Allez!”

Rafael Nadal says “Vamos!”

Roger Federer, if you listen carefully, sometimes mutters a “Oui!”

Lleyton Hewitt, in the linguistic United Nations of tennis battle cries, says, “Come on!”.

“Says” is an understatement. He powers it from the core of his being and out of his throat like a fireball. Coupled with his trademark salute – palm pointing back at the eyes as if it were a cobra’s head – it has become his imprint on the sport he dominated at the start of this decade. Even today, the sight of the Australian nailing a pass on the run and punctuating it with a “Come on!” remains stirring.

Of moderate size by tennis standards (he is 5’11) and lacking a dominant shot, Hewitt still won Wimbledon, the US Open and the world’s No.1 ranking. Surpassing fitness and the desire to win were his weapons. With such a stellar record, the 26-year-old Australian will be the biggest name on show at next week’s Kingfisher Airlines Open in Mumbai.

Hewitt, who is ranked No. 21 now but is trying to return to the top, has a reputation of being difficult. But he showed a mature, forthcoming side in this exclusive interview with the Hindustan Times. Excerpts.

You’ll be coming straight off a Davis Cup tie on clay against Serbia. How easy or difficult would it be to adapt to the surface and conditions in Mumbai?

Obviously, the courts and conditions will be different, but as tennis players we are used to adapting to changing conditions quickly. It’s still a very hard thing to do – but I will give my best in every match.

The Davis Cup tie is likely to be intense (Djokovic will pilot Serbia). How will you summon your competitive juices here after a draining weekend in Belgrade?

There is no question that the Davis Cup tie is going to be a tough one, however, every place we go on the ATP Tour is different and that’s very motivating. This will be my first time in India, and I will try to win the event. I am well known for my competitive nature and that I always go out there to win the match.

You were at your best at the start of this decade. What’s different now, aside from Roger Federer?

I was No. 1 in the world for two years, which was fantastic and something I’m very proud of. What’s different now? There are many factors, but my desire to be at the top isn’t different and I’m working very hard to get back up there. Federer has certainly proven to be an amazing competitor, but he’s not the only talented player out there, the ATP Tour has many great players and I’m excited about the challenges ahead.

You have a peculiar head-to-head record against Roger. You took a 7-2 lead in the beginning and now trail 7-13.

It’s not really peculiar. I was at the top of my game and Roger was coming up the ranks. Roger’s record over most players in the past few years speaks for itself. Let’s see what the future brings.

A lot is said about your personality. You have said you are misunderstood. How would you describe yourself?

It comes down to people confusing the player on the court with the person I am off it. I’m very competitive and I want to win. Yes I get fired up out there and I really care, that’s why I’ve had the success I’ve had. Off court, I’m happy to be with my beautiful wife and gorgeous daughter, our families and a close circle of my friends. Understandably, most people see me on court and think I’m like that all the time, which I’m not.

While everyone is different, do you believe that as a top athlete you could be friendlier in your public image?

I am always friendly to people when I meet them, and I hope most people who meet me would agree. When I’m on court it is my business, my workplace and my competitive instincts commence. Unfortunately, my on court image as a fighter sometimes makes people assume that’s who I am all the time. I’m not going to change the way I am on court as it would be bad for my game if I tried to do that.

The way you’ve faced personal reverses (fellow pro and longtime girlfriend Kim Clijsters called off her marriage with Hewitt) and kept at it in tennis is inspiring. Without getting into details, can you tell us how you battled through the phase? What would you advice athletes who face personal setbacks?

Thanks for the compliment. I hope that I inspire kids to always give their all – that would make me happy. Setbacks are part of any athletes’ career, for whatever reason. You have to prepare yourself for good times and bad, especially if you want a long career, and work hard at it, which I do. That would be my advice to others.

Indians love cricket. Do you? Who are your favourite players?

I’m Australian so naturally I love my cricket. I support the whole Australian team and am good friends with Adam Gilchrist. I have also had a few dealings with Steve Waugh who is obviously very committed to India, having a charity in Kolkata. I respect him very much. I think India has some great players, especially Sachin Tendulkar who is fantastic. As for playing myself, it’s a great game for relaxing. I don’t have a favorite activity (batting, bowling or fielding) – maybe I’ll have a game while I’m in Mumbai.

What role do platforms like the Kingfisher Airlines Open play in promoting tennis? What do you think Indian tennis needs to do to grow?’”

I haven’t been to India yet, so I’m not qualified to assess Indian tennis. The Kingfisher Airlines Open and tournaments like it are very important for the development of the sport. Juniors get the chance to watch top players and hopefully be inspired. Up-and-coming players have the opportunity to play qualifying and maybe even get wild cards so that they get to play more experienced opponents.