Killer Instinct

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When Lleyton hewitt awoke one January morning in 1998, there were a lot of good reasons why he should have felt nervous. It was the day he was to play his boyhood idol Andre Agassi for the first time - in a semi-final of the Australian Hardcourt titles in Hewitt's home city of Adelaide. The rookie was 16 years old, ranked No. 550 in the world and the owner of a rock 'n' roll agassi poster. Agassi was 27 and a tennis superstar. When Hewitt arrived at the Memorial Drive courts, he found Agassi sitting bare-chested in the dressing room, reading a book and looking cool as a cocktail. After a 45-min. hit-up with his coach under a scorching sun, Hewitt returned to find his opponent in precisely the same pose.

Before the match it seemed clear to almost everyone that Hewitt, though promising, would lack the nerve to trouble the great American. But here is Hewitt's secret, simple yet fundamental: he's long believed he can beat anyone. In the dressing room that day he saw not The-One-And-Only-Andre-Agassi but his next victim. And so it proved. This month in Melbourne, Hewitt - if he overcomes chicken pox in time - is favored to become the first Australian in 25 years to win the Australian Open, having finished the 2001 season as the youngest year-end No. 1 in the game's history.

People who don't know his secret look at him and wonder how he's done it. Hewitt has filled out a little since his upset win over Agassi, but his garish tennis clothes still hang loosely on his slight upper body. Fellow pros once thought him vulnerable because he rants and gesticulates like no one else in tennis. And though his behavior seems less outrageous now that he's No. 1, it is still faintly distasteful to an Australian public that, as American tennis writer Peter Bodo once observed, "tends to look askance at people who take themselves or their missions too seriously." His game has great strengths: his speed around the court, return of serve and consistency from the baseline are all exceptional. But none of these qualities is at the heart of his tennis in the way that, say, a big serve is at the heart of Pete Sampras' game.

Hewitt wasn't born to be a tennis champion. He turned himself into one by force of will. With unnerving zeal he's pursued his ambitions and those of his parents, who prepared their only son shrewdly for a career on the court. Glynn Hewitt was a state-level Australian Rules footballer, his wife Cherilyn a fine netballer and a fitness fanatic. On their home court, both played tennis athletically but without classical style. They booked Lleyton in for group lessons when he was four; 18 months later they went searching for the best junior coach in Adelaide. Already they'd figured that their son's future was in sport - and, as Glynn saw it, "tennis was a financially strong career that could go on longer than Aussie Rules." (A finance industry professional, he quit regular work two years ago to oversee Lleyton's commercial deals.)

When some of the state's leading juniors steered the Hewitts toward Peter Smith - a coach in his 30s whose promising playing career had been fatally interrupted by conscription into the military - it didn't bother them that Smith coached at the Denman Tennis Club in Mitcham, a lengthy drive from the Hewitts' home. If Smith was the best, then Smith would coach Lleyton, who made an instant impression on the man who'd refine his game for the next 11 years. "It would probably embarrass him," says Smith, now 50, "but both he and Jaslyn [Hewitt's younger sister, also a tennis pro] were beautiful little kids, always immaculately presented. As a family they're very much like that: the house is like that; the cars are like that and they're like that."

As for the boy's tennis, Smith liked what he saw. But more than his ball sense, it was Hewitt's attitude that impressed him: "He was just a fantastic pupil - quiet, shy and respectful - and he tried extremely hard to absorb absolutely everything that I said." Before long, Lleyton was having two lessons a week, watched intently by both parents. "It was fairly evident," Smith recalls, "that they had a plan. Lleyton was always early and warmed up in advance. His tennis was a huge motivating factor in their lives ... lots of other things went by the wayside."

Come summer holidays, the Hewitts would forgo lazy spells on the beach and make the trip to Melbourne each January for the Australian Open. Glynn would buy tickets to both day and night sessions: sometimes they'd be at the tennis until 1 a.m. At odd hours, he steered Lleyton toward the back courts, where they'd watch champions and journeymen alike engaged in the intense, repetitive grind of daily practice.

Glynn introduced early morning family runs which, he says, were "a discipline thing aimed at getting them in the [training] habit." When Lleyton began playing tournaments at eight, Glynn was adamant that his son should compete against older boys. The goal was never to collect trophies, he explains, but to hasten Lleyton's development by forcing him to think, adjust, improvize. "Looking back," Glynn says, "I think it's helped him immensely. It doesn't matter who's at the other end of the court: he puts on his game face and goes for it."

That game face - a fierce frown that hoods his intense blue eyes - was well known to the rivals of Hewitt's youth. His parents, partly ignorant, partly dismissive of the niceties of tennis etiquette, were rarely bothered by their son's on-court behavior. They also sensed - as have most of Hewitt's closest advisers - that to tame him would be disastrous for his tennis. Their calculated leniency has a famous precedent. In the mid-1970s, the antics of a teenaged John McEnroe were brought to the attention of the legendary Australian coach and disciplinarian Harry Hopman, who was running an academy in New York. "Let him be," Hopman told an underling. "He has so much talent that it would be a shame to break him."

Not as gifted as the artistic McEnroe, Hewitt has long reveled in the spirit of the underdog. As a teenager, he all but wore out tapes of the Rocky movies. Like the small, artless but unstoppable boxer, Hewitt has drawn on vast reserves of inner strength to topple the most daunting opponents. Having won six titles in 2001, including the U.S. Open, and amassed a personal fortune, Hewitt may have trouble convincing himself he's still an underdog. But it's hard to find anyone who thinks he'll stop winning. Says former coach Smith: "Lleyton has the most resilient body of any player I've ever seen, and I just can't see what's going to stop him." At the Australian Open, his challengers will try, of course. To succeed, they'll have to do what Hewitt has done so often in his short, spectacular career: stare down a seemingly impregnable opponent and find a way to beat him.