Tennis: The baseliner who broke the mould

Alex Hayes at Queen's sees a rising Aussie star develop taste for grass
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LLEYTON HEWITT was four when a 17-year-old called Boris burst on to the scene and became the youngest ever winner, both at Queen's and down the road at Wimbledon. Fourteen years on, and Hewitt, now 18, is hoping to leave his own imprint on the grass of London.

His quest starts tomorrow at the Stella Artois Championships. And Hewitt, the latest Australian sensation, is well aware that the event, which serves as an appetiser ahead of the piece de resistance in SW18 later this month, has shaped the reputation of many a player.

"It doesn't worry me because I don't have any ranking points to defend," he said after a practice session on Thursday. "I don't have high expectation. I can get out there, play my shots and really go for it. I have nothing to lose," he continued in his laid-back but confident manner, before adding, more revealingly: "I'd just like to get into the top 30 by the end of the year."

That is a target Hewitt should have little trouble reaching, so meteoric his rise up the ATP ladder has been. Starting the 1997 season ranked 722 in the world, he became the third youngest player of all time [behind Michael Chang and Aaron Krickstein] to win a tour event when he lifted the Adelaide title in 1998, at the age of 16 years and 10 months. At present, after winning the Dubai Open in February and finishing runner-up at Scottsdale in March, he is ranked at 41.

Hewitt, who actually also played Australian Rules football until the age of 13, finally decided to concentrate all his efforts on the more genteel game of tennis after he toured Europe in the summer of 1994, winning three out of the four tournaments he entered and becoming the world No 1 at under-14 level. "I guess I enjoy the challenge of one-on- one games," he said sporting his usual baggy shorts and tied-back blond hair. "I soon realised I had a talent for tennis and that I would have to give it more time if I wanted to be the best. Well that and the chance of missing some school," he added with a wry smile.

Rather surprisingly for a man from the country that gave us such formidable attacking players as Rod Laver, Pat Cash and, more recently, Pat Rafter and Mark Philippoussis, Hewitt is more of a baseliner. "My strength has always been my groundstrokes," he said. "I was constantly playing above my age group, so that was the only way I could compete against bigger and stronger opponents."

In fact, despite originating from Adelaide - a city which boasts some of the best grass facilities in Australia - Hewitt insisted he prefers Hardcourt and Rebound Ace. "There are loads of grass courts at Memorial Drive [in Adelaide], but there is no tournament there, so I never practise on the surface."

He added: "I haven't actually played on grass since Queen's last year [when he lost to Sebastien Lareau in the first round after holding several match points], so it will be good to get a feel for things again. This week, I have been working on my serve a little. Especially my serve-and- volley, which I don't use much but is such an important weapon on grass."

One weapon which Hewitt does employ regularly is his fiery temper, which often helps him to both destabilise opponents and focus his own mind. "I think it's just part of me and my tough footie training," he explained. "I like to play with a lot of emotion and get pumped-up."

So, seriously, is he the new John McEnroe? "Not really," said Hewitt. "We might both have gone over the top a couple of times, but that's it. It's just that we are the type of people who play their best tennis when they are in that mood. To be honest, if I can ever be anywhere near as good as him, I'll be very happy."

Queen's could be the ideal launch pad for Hewitt's grass career. Unlike the Wimbledon courts, these are notoriously hard and play true, thus giving baseliners a real chance. But if he has good reason to believe that he could join the illustrious Queen's roll of honour sooner rather than later - one which includes Jimmy Connors, McEnroe, Becker and Stefan Edberg - Hewitt is realistic about his chances over the coming weeks.

"You never know," he said. "[Andre] Agassi and [Nicolas] Kiefer have done well from the back of the court and, if some of the guys are tired after the French and the draws open up, then..." Becker's boom year was 1985; Hewitt might just mark 1999 with a bang.