Serving Up Some Attitude

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There's something vaguely unsettling about the way Lleyton Hewitt, the top-ranked tennis player in the world, yells "C'mooannn!" at himself during matches. It's not the way the words are flattened by Hewitt's Aussie twang. It's the intensity with which they are delivered. Sometimes there's a variation, such as "C'mooannn, Rocky!", a salute to Hewitt's fictional fighting hero Rocky Balboa. He carries a dvd of Rocky IV on the road to crank himself up, although that seems unnecessary, considering the passion he puts into his game. "It helps me when I show some emotion out there," says Hewitt, 21. Emotion, even if it's negative, he says, "gives my opponent a bit of a snit."

Hewitt is the leading snit-distributor in men's tennis, a player whose take-no-prisoners attitude has produced two Grand Slam singles titles. This week he defends his U.S. Open crown, two months after conquering Wimbledon. It's the same attitude that has driven him to unseemly conflicts with fans, opponents, tour officials and umpires. At the French Open, he called the chair umpire "spastic," and he got into an ugly run-in with an umpire at last year's U.S. Open. More recently he rang up a $105,650 fine, now under appeal, for allegedly running afoul of ATP Tour rules. He called the tour's actions "an absolute joke."

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No wonder John McEnroe likes him. Hewitt could be "the player the men's game has been searching for," McEnroe wrote recently. It had better find someone, fast. The women's game, which features the charismatic, hard-hitting Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, plus Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis, among others, has clearly captured the public's imagination. The men's game has plenty of terrific players, like Marat Safin and Tim Henman, and promising Americans, like Andy Roddick and James Blake. But men's tennis is in a personality slump and needs a superstar with game and gumption who can connect with fans.

Hewitt has plenty of both, which has carried him through duels like his five-set quarter-final win against Roddick in last year's Open. Playing against an American in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Hewitt refused to crack. "I really don't carry that fear factor," he says. He wore out the 19-year-old Roddick with his pinpoint ground strokes and indefatigable desire. He then dismantled Pete Sampras in the final. He is neither especially big nor strong at 5 ft. 11 in. and 160 lbs. But he is especially relentless. "He doesn't have the big game to blow guys away," says his coach, Jason Stoltenberg. "He's got to use his mind strength and his legs and his ground strokes."

For the men's tennis establishment, Hewitt couldn't have arrived at a better time. With the reigns of Andre Agassi and Sampras drawing to a close — and colorful Europeans as plentiful as empty ashtrays in Paris cafes — there is a big void at the top of the sport. Worse, a vital ATP Tour marketing partner, ISL, went bankrupt last year, leaving men's tennis with a financial shortfall. The tour needs marquee players who can lure big sponsors back to the game.

For better or worse, Hewitt's off-the-court life isn't likely to land him in the tabloids. His parents frequently join him on the road, and when at home in Adelaide, he lives in a guesthouse on their property. "Lleyton is a Jekyll and Hyde," says his mother Cherilyn. "What you see out there on that court is not him." He recently hired a hometown buddy as a one-man entourage to have someone to discuss Australian football with. (Apparently his tennis-pro girlfriend Kim Clijsters, a Belgian, isn't up to the task.)

Hewitt is bracing for the return to New York City. He knows the crowd may well be pulling for a hometown hero like Blake, particularly in the shadow of the anniversary of 9/11. U.S. Tennis Association president Merv Heller concedes as much: "To me, a dream match would be four Americans in the singles finals." That's unlikely, at least for the men. At No. 6., Agassi is the highest-seeded American. Next, at No. 11, is crowd fave Roddick. Both would have to overcome contenders like German No. 3 seed Tommy Haas and Russian No. 2 Safin. And, especially, Hewitt.

After he won last year's Open, Hewitt spent the next day driving around in a limousine to photo shoots, reveling in his victory. Then he boarded a plane to Australia — on Sept. 10. "It's going to be a weird feeling going back," says Hewitt. "I don't know what to expect." New York City being what it still is, the usual U.S. Open etiquette will obtain: Hewitt can expect a pumped-up, howling mob of tennis fanatics looking for a champion. He might not even need to bring Rocky IV along.