Hewitt dances into exclusive club of teenage masters

Australian teenager on the brink of becoming only the eighth player under 20 to qualify for end-of-year championship

Three weeks today, barring ill fortune, Australia's Lleyton Hewitt will take his place in Lisbon as one of tennis's young masters, gaining membership of a club that numbers Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Michael Chang and Pete Sampras as players who qualified for the year-end tour championship as teenagers.

Three weeks today, barring ill fortune, Australia's Lleyton Hewitt will take his place in Lisbon as one of tennis's young masters, gaining membership of a club that numbers Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Michael Chang and Pete Sampras as players who qualified for the year-end tour championship as teenagers.

Blessed with a competitive spirit to galvanise his talent, Hewitt, 19, is the type who will already have overcome the disappointment of losing his first Masters Series final in five sets to the experienced Wayne Ferreira, of South Africa, last Sunday here, and be ready to use lessons learned to advantage.

Hewitt's list of victims en route to the final - Richard Krajicek, the Dutch former Wimbledon champion, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski (Britain's entire task force), and Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Olympic gold medallist - was more impressive than the notches on the racket of some players after winning a Grand Slam title.

"He's a great player," the 29-year-old Ferreira said, overjoyed after securing his first singles title for four years. "He's the kind of player that you have to beat. He's never going to let you win."

That may be true, but the turning point in Sunday's match was a stamina-sapping third set, which Hewitt failed to serve out at 5-1 and was dragged into a tie-break, which he won, 7-5, on his seventh set point. Ferreira, fresher at the finish, prevailed, 7-6, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-2, after four hours and 11 minutes.

"It's strange," Hewitt said, "because my whole life I've had to rely on a lot of fitness. With my game, I can go sort of all day. It just wasn't there today. The main reason is because I haven't been able to put in the work as usual because of a virus."

Hewitt, an early leader in the inaugural ATP Champions Race after winning back-to-back titles in January in Adelaide, his home town, and Sydney, has remained among the contenders, adding titles in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Queen's Club, London, and reaching semi-finals at Masters Series events in Key Biscayne and Rome.

This week he is resting between engagements before going to the Paris Indoor event seeking the points that will assure him of one of the eight places in the Masters Cup in Portugal, after which Barcelona beckons for Australia's Davis Cup defence in the final against Spain on an indoor clay court.

"I have to go out in Paris and give everything I've got," he said. "If everything matches up well, hopefully I'll be there in Portugal. I think Davis Cup is the biggest worry because it is over five sets and it is on clay, as well."

Hewitt is so versatile that hopping from surface to surface would not normally be a bother. "I think my game is suited pretty much to all surfaces if I'm playing well," he said. "I'm probably a little bit different to a lot of the other guys. I don't need a hell of a lot of play on a particular surface, because I've done so well on all surfaces this year.

"I'll pop back on clay, and after a few days I'll hope that I'll be ready to go. You look at [Pat] Rafter [his Aussie team-mate], I think he's a different kettle of fish. I think he needs to be out there grinding and hitting a lot of balls. I'm sure he'd say the same thing."

Hewitt's rapid progress since January 1997, when he became the youngest-ever men's singles qualifier at the Australian Championships (15 years, 11 months) has impressed observers and opponents alike. In Adelaide in 1998 he became the youngest winner of a Tour title (16 years, 10 months) since the American Michael Chang in 1988.

Pete Sampras likens Hewitt's fleet-footed style to Chang's. Rusedski sees shades of Jimmy Connors, "The way his attitude is out there, and the way he works. His mind is very strong. He's there from the first ball to the last ball".

"I've always believed that I've been mentally tough, even when I was in the juniors," Hewitt said. "It's nice to know that your opponents think like that as well. When you get in a tough situation, they know you're not going to give them too many cheap points. I think that's a big thing to have in my favour."

Kafelnikov has questioned whether anyone in the emerging group of young players, including his compatriot Marat Safin, the United States Open champion, has what it takes to join Andre Agassi as a "marquee player".

"Obviously, everyone has potential," the 26-year-old from the Black Sea said. "It's a question of winning. Sport is not about making interviews, having your own website. It's about winning the matches, winning tournaments. I'm sure if Lleyton would win a few Grand Slams he can feel that way. It's a question of if. There's a lot of ifs."

Hewitt is aware of that. "I've had a very consistent year without doing something spectacular, I suppose, like winning a Grand Slam, which would be nice."

A sagacious tennis journalist pointed out that you can't win it all the first time around; you have to have something to go for next time.

"I can go for another one," was Hewitt's response.

HEWITT'S RISE

Born: 24 February 1981, Adelaide. Height: 5ft 11in. Weight: 10st 7lb. Plays: Right-handed. Turned professional: 1998. Coach: Darren Cahill. Highest Champions Race placing: 1 (17 January 2000). Current placing: 6. Ranking: Year-end 1997: 722. Year-end 1998: 113. Year-end 1999: 22. Singles titles: 6 (1998: Adelaide; 1999: Adelaide; Delray Beach, Florida; 2000: Sydney; Scottsdale; Queen's). Career earnings: $1,426,922 (£1,012,000).

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