Lleyton hewitt was just a few months old when, on July 4, 1981, two giants of tennis played a watershed match. The introverted Swede Björn Borg, trying to win Wimbledon for a sixth straight time, met the volatile American John McEnroe in the final. Their playing styles were as different as their temperaments: Borg was a machine, McEnroe an artist. When the challenger prevailed, it was clear to all observers that he was now the world's best. Borg certainly knew it - only 25, he quit the game soon afterward.
Men's tennis was simpler in those days. There was a king - and one or two standout hotshots busting to dethrone him. There wasn't always a clear-cut moment of succession, but the public knew soon enough when one had occurred, never mind the rankings. So it was that McEnroe eventually succumbed to Ivan Lendl, who made way for Stefan Edberg. Later, Boris Becker and Jim Courier shone brightest before Pete Sampras reigned through much of the '90s. And now? Well, there's ... no one, really. There's an official No. 1, of course - the American Andy Roddick - but only the tennis nuts would know that for sure. Nearly everyone else would be tossing up between Roddick, the ageing great Andre Agassi, that Swiss guy who's trying to bring back bandanas (Roger Federer) or perhaps the handsome Spaniard with a name like a fast car (Juan Carlos Ferrero). Nowadays, no one's much surprised when a Top 10 player loses to anyone who wields a racket for a living.
Depending on whom you ask, the absence of a dominant player is either a problem or a boon for tennis. Former Australian pro John Alexander thinks the latter. "We've entered an age where instead of a single great champion - or a single great rivalry - we have a crop of fine, equally matched players," he says. "It's going to be tough for any one of them to dominate ... but it'll be exciting to watch them try." Alexander includes in that group Hewitt, who topped the year-end rankings in 2001-02 before slipping to No. 16 last year. In the past, a plunge like that might have signaled the beginning of the end. What it means in Hewitt's case isn't clear yet. At 22, he's the same age McEnroe was when the New Yorker felled Borg - surely too young for his game to be in terminal decline? With the year's first grand-slam event starting in Melbourne on Jan. 19, many are wondering whether Hewitt can make it back to the top, starting by becoming the first local in more than 25 years to win the Australian Open.
"I call tennis ‘the lazy man's game' now," McEnroe writes in his 2002 autobiography, Serious. "Guys rely on giant serves and huge groundstrokes, but little thought, strategy or passion goes into it. That's largely why no one truly dominates the sport now. There's loads of talent out there ... but does anyone have the fire of Connors, the dedication of Lendl or the physical presence of Borg?" The smallish Hewitt lacks the last quality; he probably has the other two. But does he have the game to be No. 1 again?
"I doubt it," says Adam Anderson, a former touring pro and now Sydney-based coach. Though he praises him for his achievements, Anderson wonders whether Hewitt was perhaps the weakest No. 1 of the past 15 years, having seized the mantle in the vacuum left by Sampras' decline. With the huge-serving Roddick and the gifted shot-makers Federer and Ferrero now close to their peaks, the return path for Hewitt looks rocky. And because a lower ranking means tougher tournament draws, Hewitt will have to play well just to hold his position, let alone improve it. "He's trying to say there's no pressure on him," says Anderson. "I'd say the opposite is true: there's more pressure on him now than there's ever been in his career."
Hewitt doubters cite the precedent of the nuggetty Chinese-American Michael Chang. At the French Open in 1989, at the age of 17, Chang became the youngest man to win a grand slam title. But though he spent seven years in the Top 10 and retired only last August, he never won another one. Chang's game was built on the same pillars as Hewitt's: reliable, though not explosive, groundstrokes, a terrier's speed and tons of grit. Chang's problem - and for a while last year it looked like Hewitt's problem, too - was that grinding out matches year after year can slowly deprive even a young man of a fraction of his pace. Players with monster serves and other weapons can usually absorb the loss. But it can bring retrievers like Chang and Hewitt back to the field.
Even if he's as spry as ever, Hewitt is still in trouble, argues Anderson. Against bigger, more powerful players like Roddick, his brick-wall style doesn't cut it any more. "Lleyton's game has to move with the trends of tennis," says Anderson, "and today's trend is to whack the absolute hell out of the ball."
But has tennis really changed so much that it can no longer accommodate players of all shapes and styles? "Lleyton's a more complete player than Chang was," argues John Alexander, who suspects weariness and injuries were what hurt the Australian, along with a playing style that became too conservative - a flaw Hewitt seems to have corrected. "People tend to talk about power - about serving and forehands - and they're the fashionable things to talk about," says Hewitt's childhood coach, Peter Smith. "I always felt that Lleyton had qualities that others didn't notice, subtle qualities they couldn't measure. For a start he's a strategic genius: from the time he was a little kid he's had an incredible ability to work out other players' weaknesses and how to exploit them."
Hewitt's father Glynn challenges the idea that his son had a poor 2003: Hewitt had made helping Australia win the Davis Cup a priority, and beat both Federer and Ferrero late last year in the process of doing just that. Australian Open chief executive Paul McNamee says he expects one player to stamp himself during 2004 as the undisputed No. 1. He leans toward Federer, but says Hewitt could be the one. In any event, he adds, "it would be ludicrous to suggest Hewitt can't make it back to at least the Top 5."
Much will depend on his state of mind. Even by the standards of elite sports people, Hewitt has revealed himself as extraordinarily intense and self-confident. But is his drive to win - every time he steps on court - as powerful as ever? In Hewitt's relationship with his fiancée, Belgian world No. 2 Kim Clijsters, and his days spent caddying for Greg Norman in December, some observers see signs that Hewitt's obsession with tennis may be starting to splinter. His sterling performances in the Davis Cup last year proved he could still beat anyone in big, stand-alone matches before home crowds. But crawling back up the rankings and stringing together seven straight wins in two weeks - what's needed to claim a grand slam title - will ask sterner questions of his resolve. Whatever the obstacles, when it comes to making predictions about a man like Hewitt, the old line about never writing off a champion seems like very sound advice.